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Faith-based Advisers Petition Obama on Conscience Protections

Five members of President Obama's faith-based advisory council have joined the debate over his plan to rescind recent conscience protections for healthcare workers, but could not agree whether those rules should remain intact or be overturned.

Obama's Department of Health and Human Services has set a Thursday deadline for comments to be submitted on whether regulations former President Bush enacted in December should be overturned, as Obama plans to do.

The letter, signed by eight religious leaders and scholars, said upfront that some signers would urge HHS to retain the Bush regulations, while others would urge the Department to rescind them.

But either way, the letter submitted by Nathan Diament from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, said longstanding federal protections from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are inadequate.

"The decision to protect conscience concerns about deeply divisive healthcare procedures was made over a period of decades by the Congress, and nothing the Department did or does can rescind that decision," the letter said. "Statutes trump regulations, just as the Constitution

trumps statutes."

Signers include Diament and four other members of Obama's advisory panel for the revamped Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships: Sojourners president Jim Wallis; Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter; Wake Forest University scholar Melissa Rogers; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The Bush administration regulations protect an individual's or institution's rights to refuse a service, such as abortion or distribution of contraceptives, if doing so violates religious or moral beliefs.

Critics, however, say Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act already protects against workplace discrimination. The religious leaders' letter said Title VII does not adequately address healthcare conscience issues.

"For providers who believe life begins at conception, whether or not Plan B technically acts as an (abortion-inducing drug) changes little about the need to accommodate the pharmacist with a conscientious objection to dispensing Plan B," the letter said. "As the law does in other contexts, we should rely on the refusing party to decide where his or her conscience concerns begin and end."

The writers hold Obama to a campaign pledge in which he said he would support legislation to strengthen Title VII.

"A strengthened Title VII, with its `undue hardship' `reasonable accommodation' balancing approach is, in our view, an excellent means of addressing healthcare conscience issues beyond the scope" of the Bush-era regulations, the letter said.

Others who joined the letter include the Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist's Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; anti-abortion Catholic scholar Douglas Kmiec; and Robert Fretwell-Wilson, a law professor at Washington & Lee University.

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