Is House Health Care Bill a Threat to Our Constitution?

Human Rights

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was delivered as a statement at a press conference called by the Religious Coaltion for Reproductive Choice at the National Press Club on November 16, 2009. The topic was the anti-choice amendment, authored by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that was attached to the House health-care reform bill.

In the United States, the institutions of government and religion are separate.


This is not just my opinion. It is the law of the land. Our Constitution prohibits Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court has stated more than once that laws must not advance religion or have a religious purpose.


How surprising and appalling, then, to see that a provision designed to curtail women’s right to abortion was slipped into the health-care bill at the behest of a powerful religious group, a provision that reflects the doctrines of that group.


A few days ago, Rep. Bart Stupak, the prime mover of this provision, told the Associated Press, “The Catholic Church used their power — their clout, if you will — to influence this issue. They had to. It’s a basic teaching of the religion.”


Therein lies the problem. It is not the job of government to enforce religious teaching. Abortion is a constitutionally protected medical procedure in this country. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has sought to change that fact, but the bishops have been unable to persuade the American people that their view is correct. Indeed, polls show that the church hierarchy has been unable to persuade even its own members to adopt the church’s narrow view on legal abortion.


The church hierarchy now seeks through legislative action to accomplish something it has failed to get through its own efforts at moral suasion. Is it any wonder that those of us who are not even members of the church are upset and angry about this? We wish to live in the 21st Century, not an echo of medieval Spain. We do not wish to have the doctrines of the Catholic Church – or indeed any faith – imposed on us through law.


I understand the desire of the House leadership to pass a health-care bill. The issue has been on the national agenda in some form or another since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.


But health-care reform that attacks the rights of more than half of the population by subjecting some of their basic and most intimate decisions to a large and powerful church’s governing body is not reform at all. It is a huge step backward. As the director of a constitutional rights group – and I

say this sadly -- it would be better to dump the entire bill than to allow it to become law with these noxious provisions intact.


I suppose those of us standing here today may be accused of “anti-Catholicism” for what we have said. Nothing could be further from the truth. We know that across this country, Catholics of goodwill have joined us in opposing this heavy-handed move by the bishops and their Washington lobbyists. You can feel the anger stirring across the land; a backlash is building. It will not be silenced, and we are here today to give voice to that movement.


I have always taken as one of my guiding lights America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. In a famous 1960 speech he said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act…. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials….”


Those were wise words. We best honor them today not by enshrining them in books and nodding in agreement when we read them. We honor those words by putting them into practice and ensuring that America upholds the separation of church and state


That’s why we are calling on the Senate to not include this amendment in their version of the bill. There is still time to stop this from becoming law.


This lobbying effort by the Roman Catholic Church was as well-orchestrated and ruthless an assault on the rights of the poor as any campaign waged by any other corporation. At a minimum, the church should voluntarily register as a federal lobbyist and disclose the costs of this attack on women’s constitutional rights. This would be consistent with an ethos of transparency, without even raising the specter of undue government interference with religion.

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