Speeches

The most extraordinary feature of the bill before us today is the incongruity between its title and its content.

The title—the “Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act”—is clear and straightforward. It suggests the bill is aimed at the important and worthy goal of protecting women’s health.

But the text of the legislation plainly demonstrates that the true objective of the bill is to circumscribe Americans’ religious liberties within the narrow confines of the Democratic Party’s partisan agenda and the whims of politicians and bureaucrats.

While maintaining the appearance of preserving all the current legal protections of religious freedom in America today, this proposal quietly adds to them a subtle, yet deeply problematic and inappropriate, qualification: the federal government will not prohibit the free exercise of religion…until the federal government decides it wants to. 

Under this bill, your religious liberties stop at the doorstep of the Democratic National Committee.

And so I rise today in opposition to this bill because it doesn’t do anything to protect women’s health and it does much to undermine the bulwarks of liberty enshrined in our Constitution that have made America the most religiously diverse and tolerant nation in human history.

Although this proposal is only the latest maneuver attempted by my Democratic colleagues to assert the power to restrict religious freedom in America, it also represents the culmination, at least for now, of their opposition to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

On June 30 of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government cannot force closely held businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs in order to comply with the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act.

This decision has received a great deal of attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Contrary to what many critics have suggested, the Hobby Lobby decision did not promulgate national health care policy; nor did it render any opinion on the virtues of contraception and religious faith.

No, the issue in Hobby Lobby involved not a dispute of competing rights, but a straight-forward application of plainly written law.

As the Constitution states in Article III, Section 2, the role of the Supreme Court is to adjudicate legal disputes by hearing “cases and controversies” that arise when two laws come into conflict. 

In Hobby Lobby, the two laws in dispute were the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (passed by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993) and a federal mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, acting under the powers delegated to it by the Affordable Care Act.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or RFRA) reaffirmed Americans’ commitment to the fundamental religious liberty protected by our Constitution. 

With RFRA, a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President – in cooperation with Republican minorities - declared that when the federal government seeks to infringe on Americans’ religious liberty, it must clear two thresholds.

First, it must show that the law in question serves a compelling state interest. And second, if it does, the law must do so by the least restrictive means possible. 

Given that the government openly acknowledged there were a  number of far less restrictive means to ensure affordable access to the drugs at issue, the Supreme Court rightly ruled that the contraception mandate violated RFRA.

However unwarranted, the overheated response to the Hobby Lobby decision among some ideological extremists on the Left has led some of my colleagues to introduce a bill that would not simply overturn that modest and narrow decision, but fundamentally rewrite America’s social contract as it pertains to matters of personal conscience.

Whereas the Court’s ruling was limited to “closely held,” for-profit companies, like Hobby Lobby, this bill would empower the federal government to coerce employers of all faiths and no faith into violating their deepest personal convictions.

It would deny any employer—devout or secular, individual or corporate, for-profit or nonprofit — conscience protection under RFRA against all present and future government mandates.

Perhaps most troubling is the warped theory of rights underlying the text of this bill.

This theory holds that the American people possess constitutional and legal rights only when acting alone, but not when acting in a group. These rights, along with any duties one may hold as a person of faith, must be forfeited whenever acting in association with others, on penalty of fines paid to the federal government.

This view of religious liberty might be summarized as an amendment to Matthew, chapter 18, verse 20: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there is the IRS in the midst of them.”

This view is extreme, out of touch with the constitution, common sense, and America’s heroic history of religious tolerance.

From our earliest days, one of the sources of our strength as a people and one of the reasons for our success as a nation has been our robust understanding of religious liberty. The breadth and depth of that conception has allowed and encouraged people of all faiths and traditions to live here in friendship and cooperation with one another.

As two members of the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom put it: 

“…respect for the flourishing of people requires respect for their freedom—as individuals and together with others in community—to address the deepest questions of human existence and meaning. This allows them to lead lives of authenticity and integrity by fulfilling what they conscientiously believe to be their religious and moral duties. […] It also includes the right to witness to one's beliefs in public as well as private, and to act—while respecting the equal right of others to do the same—on one's religiously inspired convictions in carrying out the duties of citizenship.”[1]

Expanding as wide as possible the space in which all people can witness their faith alongside one another has for two centuries elevated, enriched, and united American society. 

This robust conception of religious liberty was so essential to American unity that not only did the Founding generation reinforce its protection in a Bill of Rights – which many Framers actually thought was redundant – but that it was the first freedom articulated in the first amendment.

They understood, as most Americans still do, that the proper role of government is not to define people’s happiness, but to protect all individuals equal rights to pursue happiness, according to her own hopes and values and conscience.

Yet for all its legal and constitutional protections, America’s exceptional tradition of religious toleration ultimately rests on the uniquely American principle of equal dignity and respect for all women and men, not simply as “fellow passengers to the grave,” but as fellow pilgrims in search of their own promised land.

The authors of this bill know all this. They know the American people reject their intolerance of diversity and indifference to the First Amendment. We know their bill cannot become law. Indeed, we know this for a fact, because if the regulations they support were actually written in the law, Obamacare itself never would have passed. It was slipped in after the fact, by bureaucrats not subject to public accountability.

This legislation is more than an insult to the people it would target; it is an embarrassment to the party leadership that has embraced it.

I still hold fast to that principle and the freedom it preserves, and thus strongly urge my colleagues to vote against this bill.



[1] “Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion,” Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett, The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2013. (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324783204578624510558738282).