Conscience Rights are Women’s Rights

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Editor’s Note: The following public comment was submitted on behalf of Concerned Women for America to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in support of new regulations protecting conscience rights.
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Concerned Women for America (“CWA”) is the largest public policy women’s organization in the United States with members from all 50 states. Through our grassroots organization, CWA protects and promotes Biblical values and Constitutional principles through prayer, education, and advocacy. CWA is profoundly committed to the rights of individual citizens and organizations to exercise their religious freedoms as protected by the U.S. Constitution and other laws.

This is why we are so encouraged by the proposed regulation (Docket HHS-OCR-2018-0002) and want to express our strong support for HHS and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in this noble and much-needed endeavor.

As an organization representing the interest of a significant group of women, CWA finds it offensive that people of faith increasingly find themselves at odds with the government merely for affirming the right to live according to the dictates of conscience and faith as guaranteed by the Frist Amendment.

In this comment, we’d like to remind you that in affirming conscience rights you act with the full support of thousands of women around the country who value freedom and liberty.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, nearly 80% of workers in the healthcare and social assistance field are women. Female nurses outnumber men 10 to 1! Make no mistake about it, you are working on behalf of women by protecting the rights of conscience for healthcare professionals and we commend you for it.

Let the record show that, though we are certain you will hear from women that will oppose this regulation because of their radical commitment to abortion or “reproductive rights,” they do not speak for the majority of women, let alone “all” women.

Government does women a great disservice when it treats them as a monolithic group that it can appease by following the loudest voices with access to mainstream media megaphones. We are not all the same. CWA supporters are people whose voices are often overlooked—everyday, middle-class American women whose views are not represented by the powerful elite. Those frequently-quoted liberal voices do not speak for the hundreds of thousands of supporters of CWA around the nation.

Women leaders throughout history have stood up for the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

The Anne Hutchinson Memorial at the Massachusetts State House stands as a reminder of a time in our history when women could be marginalized because of their deeply held religious views. It is sad that the government’s actions in many cases today remind us of that history. Hutchinson was tried and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 because of her religious views.[1]

The inscription in the marble foundation of her monument reads in part: “In Memory of Anne Marbury Hutchinson…  Courageous Exponent of Civil Liberty and Religious Toleration.”[2]  She was punished for her religious beliefs then, and ironically, today the government still threatens to punish, in different ways, but still tries to punish women of conviction if they dare server their neighbor by faithfully adhering to the dictates of their conscience or their faith.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first person born in the United States to become canonized as a saint (September 14, 1975), also had to stand by her religious convictions in a less than free environment.[3] Biographer Julie Walters recounts a time when Anti-Catholic mobs would stand outside the doors of the church yelling things like, “We’re going to burn this unholy place to the ground.”[4] But Seaton overcame all that and went on to establish the Sisters of the Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first new community for religious women in the United States. She began the first free Catholic school for girls in the U.S., St.  Joseph’s Academy and Free School, and her lifetime commitment to charity is still celebrated today.[5]

These stories are a reminder of that highest of principles enshrined in our great Constitution, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (U.S. Const. amend I). HHS should not lose sight that it is religion—and faith—that fueled these women’s passion for a life of service. Government should recognize that faith still motivates millions to a life of service.

It was faith that fueled Evangeline Booth (1865–1950), daughter of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth. She became commander of the Salvation Army in America and the first general of the International Salvation Army.[6] All the incredible service to the most vulnerable done by the Salvation Army throughout the years is “rooted in the faith of its members.”[7]

Those are just a few names, but many more exist. Women like Isabella Graham who established the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children[8] and Phoebe Palmer who

founded the Five Point Mission to provide for the needy.[9] That same spirit of faith and charity motivates many women who serve in the healthcare industry today to do what they do.

But a perceivable, recent government trend toward hostility in matters of conscience follows a dark pattern that threatens to stifle the historical tradition of religious expression through humble service by imposing a substantial and unnecessary burden on a person’s ability to serve their neighbors. In the healthcare industry, as we have mentioned above, it is a burden that women will bear disproportionately—and women of faith, in particular. In many cases, the government has been prepared to force them to abandon their religious calling if they are not willing to do what their consciences prohibit them to do. Just look at what the previous administration did to the Little Sisters of the Poor. We were proud to fight alongside them all the way to the Supreme Court!

We are thankful for OCR’s willingness to protect women of faith with these proposed regulations. We do not see this as a partisan move at all.  And we appreciate that.  Even the most liberal of women should be for protecting the rights of conscience of all.  If we do not guard our freedom in this most intimate of areas, between a woman and her God, women could just as easily be at risk of losing their freedoms in any number of other areas that are perhaps cherished more by liberal groups.

As we mentioned before, women are not a homogeneous group of people placing similar values in all areas of life, including faith or reproductive rights. But they should all be treated equally and with respect and dignity. The government distorts the facts when it argues that it is acting on behalf of “women” by imposing a violation of conscience in the name of “reproductive freedom.” We urge you to reject any urgency to simplify the values of women by taking the singular view of a few and imposing it by force of law or regulation on all. The proposed regulations ensure this won’t happen and provide a way for correction if it does.

Thirty-nine years ago, Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America precisely for this reason. She wanted to make sure women of faith had a voice in legal and public matters where she felt a particular view was being presented consistently as the views of all women. Today, CWA enjoys wide support, having become a powerful voice on behalf of women of faith all over the nation. Throughout the years, CWA has stood in representation of women’s religious liberties in the culture, legislatures and the courts.[10] This comment on behalf of CWA seeks the same still today.  We ask that the views of women of faith not be made subservient to the views of other groups of women who may not share our values.

Protecting religious freedom and the rights of conscience protects women’s rights.

[1] Melina Mangal, Anne Hutchinson: Religious Reformer 7, Capstone Press (2004).

[2] Pictures and description available at http://www.dcmemorials.com/index_

indiv0008064.htm (last visited May 26, 2014).

[3] Biograpy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, available at http://www.setonheritage.org/learn-and-explore/resources/mother-seton-bio/early-life/ (last visited May 26, 2014).

[4] Julie Waters, Elizabeth Ann Seton: Saint for a New Nation 71, Paulist Press (2002).

[5] Biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, available at The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, http://www.setonheritage.org/learn-and-explore/resources/mother-seton-bio/ (last visited May 26, 2014).

[6] Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S. Boyer, eds. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 2, 206, Harvard University Press (1971).

[7] Salvation Army International Statement on Faith, available at http://www.salvationarmy.org/ihq/faith (last visited May 26, 2014).

[8] Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World 165, ABC-CLIO, Inc. (2004).

[9] Richard Wheatle, The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer 224, W.C. Palmer, Jr. (1876).

[10] See, e.g., Concerned Women for America Inc. v. Lafayette County, 883 F.2d 32 (5th Cir. 1989) as an example, where the court held the use of public library by women’s religious group would not violate the establishment clause; see also Travis v. Owego-Apalachin School Dist., 927 F.2d 688, (2nd 1991).