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Hearing on Religion and Freedom of Conscience Was “Misleading, Unbalanced and Inaccurate.”

February 16, 2012

Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing titled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

The title of the hearing was clearly a leading question, and the fact that no witnesses who might have rebutted the assertion were invited to speak only added to the bias. The organizers also denied that it had anything to do with contraception—a laughable assertion.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said, “There are two issues at stake in this debate: contraception and religious liberty. Those who would argue otherwise are denying reality. This morning, we heard the bald-faced lies that are being presented to the public by those pretending that the issue of insurance coverage for family planning impinges on religious liberty. In their arguments, they accuse the Obama administration of infringing on their freedom of religion and conscience, but miraculously retain the right to deny freedom of religion and conscience for those with whom they disagree. Rather than securing religious liberty for all, they seek special treatment for themselves. The hearing was full of misleading, unbalanced and inaccurate information from politically motivated ideologues who want to dictate to women when and how many children they should have.”

Mr. O’Brien, who testified before Congress last November on this very subject, pointed out that “the problem is that those who oppose family planning don’t respect the consciences of the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who have used a form of birth control banned by the Vatican. These women would doubtless cite their well-being and that of their families for their moral decisions, but the witnesses today have seen fit to ignore this and have not been shy in expressing their point of view accordingly.”

“Religious liberty includes the freedom of conscience for everyone, including women who use contraception and family planning. Women must not be stymied in their family-planning choices by the beliefs of their employer or the hierarchy of any given tradition or faith.

“The hyperbole we heard this morning from the witnesses was pathetic. Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, a Lutheran minister, asserted that ‘the conscience only has room for God, not God and the federal government.’ Timothy Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, said that ‘HHS is acting on a political agenda about how women should live their sex lives.’

“These statements are so rife with irony that they would be amusing if the stakes weren’t so high. Rev. Harrison should remember that conflicts between church and state date back to the beginning of our nation. In today’s pluralistic world, however, we have to consider many factors in making conscience-based decisions, including those related to public policy. Does a given policy support the common good or privilege one tradition or sector of society over another? And it seems to be the opponents of contraception coverage who are insinuating themselves into the bedroom¬, which—as the HHS decision confirms—should be the undisputed realm of the individual conscience.”

O’Brien continued, “We should remember that religious freedom is an expansive rather than restrictive idea. It has two sides, freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It is not about telling people what they can and cannot believe or practice, but rather about respecting an individual’s right to follow his or her own conscience in religious beliefs and practices, as well as in moral decision making. The protections we put in place to preserve religious freedom do not—and should not be considered to—permit religious institutions or individuals to obstruct or coerce the exercise of another’s conscience.

“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is heavily invested in this battle against public support for family planning because, having failed to convince Catholics in the pews, the bishops are now trying to impose their religious views by fiat. This is not a mere sectarian debate: in the process they stand to impede the religious freedom of millions of Americans of all faiths and no faith, taking reproductive healthcare options away from everybody. The result will be an unconscionable violation of the conscience rights of Americans, sponsored and supported by a small group of religious leaders who have lost all credibility on this issue.

“When the selection of speakers at a hearing is not reflective of the population at large—or of women at all—it gives the impression of a false consensus. In reality, the majority of women and men recognize family planning as being a choice that is essential both for their own dignity, and the existence of a society based on individual liberty. ”