U.S. Bishops Praise Conscience Protections by Trump Administration

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GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP JEFF SWENSEN

The United States Catholic Bishops have lauded provisions by the Trump administration that offer broad moral and religious exemptions to the HHS Mandate stemming from Obamacare.

In a statement this week, representatives of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB) called the new exemptions a victory for “common sense.”

“We are grateful for the Administration’s decision to finalize common-sense regulations that allow those with sincerely held religious or moral convictions opposing abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception to exclude such drugs and devices from their health plans,” read the statement, which was co-signed by USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, who heads the bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty.

“These final regulations restore free exercise rights in accordance with the First Amendment and long-standing statutory protections for religious freedom,” the bishops said.

“The regulations allow people like the Little Sisters of the Poor, faith-based schools, and others to live out their faith in daily life and to continue to serve others, without fear of punishing fines from the federal government,” they said.

In their statement, the bishops reiterated a position articulated in a similar message a year ago, when President Trump first indicated that he would be expanding conscience provisions for the HHS mandate.

In October 2017, the USCCB applauded the Trump administration’s decision to broaden conscience exemptions for the HHS contraceptive mandate as a “return to common sense.”

In a statement at the time, the bishops said that the decision “corrects an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated.”

Religious liberty debates in the U.S. since 2011 have focused on the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns that was harassed by the Obama administration under the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act and made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

In August 2011, the Obama administration declared that it would oblige all employers to provide insurance coverage for everything from sterilization to Plan B, a drug whose own FDA label warns can induce abortion. Despite opposition by many groups, including the U.S. bishops, the administration dug in its heels, and the Department of Health and Human Services issued the mandate, triggering the biggest religious liberty lawsuit in American history.

Last October, the Trump administration announced new rules that would regulate the HHS mandate, allowing conscientious objectors to opt out of Obamacare’s contraception and abortion-pill mandate for religious or moral reasons.

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund and lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor, applauded the ruling, calling it “a great step forward for religious liberty.”

“The Little Sisters still need to get final relief in court, which should be easy now that the government admits it broke the law,” Rienzi said.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration released its final rule, declaring that an exemption from the contraceptive coverage mandate would be extended “to entities that object to services covered by the mandate on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs” as well as to “nonprofit organizations and small businesses that have non-religious moral convictions opposing services covered by the mandate.”

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