The Alliance for Conscience Rights applauds the House of Representatives for passing the Conscience Protection Act. Today’s bill passage is a critical step forward to ensuring religious health care entities are adequately protected against governmental discrimination with a private right of action, which would allow them to defend their civil rights in federal court. The Alliance for Conscience Rights thanks House leadership, bill authors Congresswoman Diane Black and Congressman John Fleming, M.D., and the over 100 cosponsors of the measure for their attention to this critical issue.
Background: In August of 2014, California’s Department of Managed Health Care mandated health plans to start covering all abortions as a basic health care service or “standard of care” – even late-term and gender-selection abortions. Since the mandate, large numbers of California religious employers have been forced to cover all abortions in their employee health plans, a clear violation of the federal protections provided in the Weldon Amendment, a federal civil rights statute enacted in annual appropriations that protects health care entities from discrimination on the basis that they choose not to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions. In response to this discrimination, using their only available recourse, several faith-based and legal groups filed complaints with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights. Despite numerous inquiries by members of Congress, report language in two separate omnibus bills, and several letters to HHS, the OCR did not issue a ruling until June 21, 2016, nearly two years after California’s action. The OCR ruled against the complainants in the California case, claiming that they were not “health care entities” in the manner intended by the Weldon Amendment and its legislative history, and, therefore, could not experience discrimination under the law. Moreover, the OCR indicated in its ruling that the Weldon Amendment is coercive to states and, therefore, likely unconstitutional. Members of Congress and religious organizations immediately and vehemently disagreed with the OCR’s interpretation of the Weldon Amendment and the standing of the complainants resulting from California’s action. The Conscience Protection Act would codify existing protections outside of the appropriations process, and provide a more effective remedy for those experiencing governmental discrimination by giving them standing in federal court to seek injunctive relief from governmental assaults on legally protected conscience rights.