WASHINGTON (USCCB) — The Fortnight for Freedom: Freedom to Bear Witness will take place from June 21 to July 4, a time when our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power — St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. The theme of this year’s Fortnight will focus on the “freedom to bear witness” to the truth of the Gospel.
Why we need a Health Care Conscience Rights Act
The right of religious liberty, the First Freedom guaranteed by our Constitution, includes a right to provide and receive health care without being required to violate our most fundamental beliefs. Especially since 1973, when abortion became legal nationwide, federal lawmakers have worked in a bipartisan way to ensure that Americans can fully participate in our health care system without being forced to take part in abortion or other procedures that violate their conscience.
But the need to improve current laws is clear, because the right of conscience is still under attack:
• Dedicated health care professionals, especially nurses, still face pressure to assist in abortions under threat of losing their jobs or their eligibility for training programs.
The state of California recently started forcing all health insurers in the state to include elective abortions in the health plans they sell.
• A Catholic agency that for years had provided excellent service lost its federal grant to serve the victims of human trafficking, because it could not, in conscience, comply with a new requirement to facilitate abortions and other morally objectionable procedures for its clients.
Under the new health care reform law, the federal government demands that almost all health plans fully cover female sterilization and drugs and devices that prevent pregnancy, including those that can cause an early abortion. Even individuals and organizations with a religious objection to abortion, sterilization or other procedures are forced to take part.
In some states, government officials are seeking to force even Catholic hospitals to allow abortions.
This is why members of Congress of both parties are sponsoring the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940). The act would improve federal law in three ways:
• Correcting loopholes and other deficiencies in the major federal law preventing governmental discrimination against health care providers that do not help provide or pay for abortions.
• Inserting a conscience clause into the health care reform law, so its mandates for particular “benefits” in private health plans will not be used to force insurers, employers and individuals to violate their consciences or give up their health insurance.
• Add a “private right of action” to existing federal conscience laws, so those whose consciences are being violated can go to court to defend their rights. (Current enforcement is chiefly at the discretion of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is itself sponsoring some attacks on conscience rights.)
All House and Senate members should be urged to support and co-sponsor the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, so our First Freedom can regain its proper place as a fundamental right protected in our health care system. For more details, see www.usccb.org/conscience.
More reforms needed
in Myanmar to counter religious violence
Change has come to Myanmar as the previously authoritarian government has allowed elections and some political, economic and social reforms. Many political prisoners have been released, including Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Some investment is flowing in. But underneath this apparent progress there is uncertainty about the future as hardliners, especially the military, resist those who would push for more reforms. President Obama, in his second visit to Myanmar in November 2014, urged President Thein Sein to continue political and constitutional reforms and to end the persecution of ethnic minorities.
The conflict between Muslims and Buddhists from the Rakhine ethnic group in the west has garnered the most international attention. The Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya and want to be considered another of the 135 ethnic groups that make up the country, claim to have come to Myanmar centuries ago. On the other hand, Rakhine Buddhists view Muslims solely as recent Bengali migrants, who compete for scarce resources, and would like to expel them. The government has denied citizenship to the Rohingya so they are “stateless.” They face restrictions on marriage, number of children, residence and the right to own property. Rohingya Muslims numbering 180,000 are internally displaced, confined to squalid refugee camps where their food rations and access to essential services like health care are limited. Catholic groups offering humanitarian assistance to Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) are only allowed to do so through the government. Militant Buddhists have boycotted Muslim businesses.
The worst outbreak of anti-Muslim violence occurred in 2012 following the rape of a Buddhist woman and the killing of 10 Muslims. Violence against the Rohingya minority quickly spread to other communities. Many incidents of anti-Muslim communal violence were sparked by accusations against one individual, but followed by vigilante justice enacted against entire communities. Since 2012, more than 1,000 people have died and over 250,000 people have been displaced. The state’s response in holding perpetrators accountable and protecting these vulnerable communities is widely viewed as inadequate at best, complicit at worst. Many Rohingya have fled on overcrowded boats seeking refuge, only to drown.
In addition to the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, there are other long-standing tensions that erupt into armed conflict between ethnic/tribal minorities, who generally live along the borders, and the Burmese majority who occupy the central plain. Some of these struggles have taken on religious overtones. The Kachin in the north, who are 95 percent Christian, have been fighting with the government for years over their right to land and resources (timbers, gems) found in the region. In 2011, about 100,000 fled their homes, many to China, only to be eventually forced back across the border to live in camps. Other ethnic groups, e.g. Kayah, Shan and Chin (many of whom are also Christian), live in buffer zones where they have often been persecuted and forced into labor for the military. They have been struggling for equality, justice and freedom since 1948, resisting the loss of their language and culture by “Burmanization.” In this time of transition, marginalized groups are finding it difficult to make their voice heard.
To further complicate the situation, the government has been promoting new laws that threaten religious freedom. Parliament began 2015 by debating bills that would require permission from local authorities before converting to a new religion, limit interfaith marriage and allow governments in ethnic minority areas to set their own population controls.
Many religious leaders voiced concern that despite the current religious overtones, the violence is motivated by forces that want to slow the pace of reforms. The Catholic Church has been very active in advocating for dialogue.
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