Interfaith coalition seeks clearer conscience protections


WASHINGTON (JTA) — An interfaith coalition called on President Obama to provide more clarity to federal law providing religious conscience protections for health-care workers.

Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Orthodox Union, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, were among eight leaders of the faith community who submitted a comment on the effort by the Obama administration to rescind a "conscience rule" enacted in the waning days of the Bush administration. The signatories to the document used their institutional affiliations but said they were not speaking on behalf of their organizations.

Diament and Saperstein were among five signers who serve on Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The signatories said their opinions differed on the actual rule, which cuts off federal funding for governments, hospitals and others if they do not allow doctors, nurses or other health-care workers to opt out of participating in medical procedure that they believe violates their beliefs. But they emphasized that federal law already provides some conscience protections for health-care workers, most notably in the area of abortion, and that conscience protections should not be looked at as a "zero-sum game."

The comment then recommended that if the rule is rescinded, the administration should clarify what is covered under current law and undertake educational efforts to explain current statutes. It also urges the administration to uphold the president’s promise to strengthen Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by undertaking efforts to pass legislation protecting religious freedom in the workplace.

In a separate comment, an interfaith coalition including the American Jewish Committee, Agudath Israel of America, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the Orthodox Union also stressed the importance of such legislation, whether the conscience rule is rescinded or not.

Meanwhile, the Reform movement on Monday called for the rescinding of the conscience rule. In comments submitted to the Health and Human Services Department, Saperstein said the rule’s "overly broad definitions and the diminished right of patients’ access to service is deeply troubling." He added that "to protect and strengthen the health and well-being of all Americans, individuals must have access to the full range of health-care services and information, including contraception."

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