Why Governor Nixon Should Sign the Religious Liberties Bill

Since our nation’s founding, America has been a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world. The most important of those freedoms are enshrined in the First Amendment, which protects the rights of religion, speech, the press, protest, and petitioning government – in that order.

There’s a reason the First Amendment is first, and religion is the first of the First. Without the right of conscience – to worship (or not worship) as one sees fit – life is stripped of greater meaning. Religious beliefs go to a citizen’s very core. If government is allowed to rip those beliefs apart by compelling action against deeply-held, long-standing religious beliefs, it is allowed to eviscerate the individual.

This year, as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama ordered that all employers who provide insurance must provide their employees with access to contraceptives – even if the employer has a religious objection to such coverage. To protect the First Amendment rights of Missourians, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 749, which does three things. First, it requires insurers to inform their consumers whether their plan covers abortions or contraceptives. Second, thanks to an amendment I sponsored, it allows individuals to opt-out of coverage for elective abortions. No Missourian should be forced to pay for another’s abortion, and this provision ensures they won’t. Third, it clarifies that no Missourian will be discriminated against or penalized by Missouri government or private entities in our state for standing on religious conviction in deciding what health insurance to purchase for themselves or others.

SB 749 has gained attention from opponents who call it an anti-woman bill. One tactic has been to accuse the bill’s supporters of being against birth control. This could not be further from the truth. I, for one, think it’s better for a business to provide a health insurance plan that covers birth control (but not elective abortions or abortifacients). But I also believe in freedom of conscience. Government should not tread on the religious beliefs of citizens when it comes to actions that aren’t necessary to save the life of or protect another person from harm.

The other thing I noticed in the context of debate on this issue was the general misunderstanding of constitutional rights. I have heard it argued a few times that a person has a “right” to certain health care and that this “right” extends to employer-provided coverage. Constitutionally-speaking, a “right” is something that protects a person from the actions of government and government alone. A “right” does not put one class of citizens above another by permitting government to conscript employers to do things against their religious beliefs. A “right” does not pit citizen against citizen. Instead, a “right” acts as a shield against overreaching government. While it might be wise for employers to cover contraceptives, there is no right in the Constitution for any person to have anything provided by another person. Rights aren’t about policy outcomes. To argue otherwise is to define all “rights” right out of our Constitution. 

Governor Nixon should move beyond the rhetoric and review SB 749 in light of our nation’s dedication to religious liberty and the simple idea that one person should not be forced to foot the bill for another person’s elective abortion. Even if, like me, he does not have a religious objection to contraceptives, Governor Nixon should put the First Amendment above the short-term policy “benefit” of mandating health care coverage he believes employers should provide. And he should actually sign the bill, not just punt on the issue.