Errant Exercise: Louisiana Amendment Could Jeopardize Health Care, Civil Rights

While Americans United has always supported providing strong protection for those who wish to exercise their religion freely, we are extremely concerned with the overly broad language of HB 340.

Imagine this: You've been having a really rough day at work, finding it hard to focus on anything other than your impending doctor's appointment. When 5:00 rolls around, you take a deep breath, hop in your car and start towards his office while futzing with your iPod looking for your favorite Springsteen song. Sweaty palms, you can't stop thinking about how apprehensive you are -- you've never been one for needles.

Arriving safely, you walk through the front door and head straight to the sign-in table. After a bit of a wait, you're called into Exam Room 2, and a young doctor begins taking your history and vitals. He asks about your obvious pregnancy and if you're taking the right vitamins. In making small talk you mention that you're unmarried.

The exam stops abruptly as he says: "Miss. Hold up right there. I'm going to have to deny you treatment. You see, my conscience prevents me from participating in your health care service."

Ridiculous, right? Illegal? Impossible?

No.

If the Louisiana legislature passes HB 340 and HB 517, a local doctor may be able to do just that.

State senators voted this week in favor of HB340 adding a new religious freedom clause to their Constitution that would include a new definition of "free exercise."

"The free exercise of religion includes the right of every person to freely express his sincerely held religious belief and to engage in or refrain from activity based on a sincerely held religious belief. Such right shall not be burdened unless the government proves that it has a compelling government interest in infringing on the specific expression...and that there is no other less burdensome alternative," reads HB340.

While Americans United has always supported providing strong protection for those who wish to exercise their religion freely, we are extremely concerned with the overly broad language of HB 340.

Currently, the U.S. Constitution, and Louisiana's State Constitution have virtually identical free exercise provisions. This prevents legal confusion and minimizes conflicts; the definition of free exercise is interpreted and applied evenly through a number of state and federal court cases.

If HB 340 were to pass, there would be a new sense of legal confusion about how to define and protect free exercise in the state of Louisiana.

AU attorneys argued in a letter to Sen. Julie Quinn, chairman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee, that the proposed amendment "is far sweeping and over broad." They also warned that the measure could undercut civil rights laws.

The other, HB 517 (still being redrafted and edited), provides any public employee the right to refuse to provide health care services that "violate" his or her "conscience."

What!?

Rep. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) stated that "explicitly carving out a right of refusal to act allows [government] employees to refuse certain job requirements."

More than allowing a health care provider to refuse services to people with whom he/she does not agree theologically without any sort of legal recourse, the law blatantly allows public employees to discriminate on the basis of religion or moral standards. This would be a serious breach of the wall of separation!

Of course, the driving force between the two pieces of legislation is the Rev. Gene Mills, the leader of the Louisiana Family Forum, a local arm of the Religious Right (and an affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family empire). And of course, Gov. Bobby Jindall and his cronies are right on board.

Louisiana needs to get its act together before its citizens need to start crossing state borders to receive basic health care and basic freedoms.