Missouri legislators considering a bill on free speech rights of alternative-to-abortion agencies turned to discussion on religious liberty and a recent measure passed in the City of St. Louis. The discussion came at a hearing Feb. 14 at the state Capitol.
House Bill 174, sponsored by Rep. Tila Hubrecht (R-Dexter), would acknowledge the rights of alternatives-to-abortion agencies, such as pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes, to freely assemble and engage in religious practices or speech without government interference. Members of the Children and Families Committee heard over an hour and a half of testimony at a Feb. 14 hearing.
Hubrecht offered a substitute to the bill, which would pre-empt any local government from enacting a law that would require an individual, organization or other entity from directly or indirectly participating in abortion or provide health benefits that are contrary to their religious or moral beliefs.
The measure could impact a new ordinance in St. Louis that makes pregnancy and reproductive decisions protected classes. In testimony against HB174, St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, who co-sponsored Board Bill 203, said the House measure has a “distinct possibility” of invalidating St. Louis’ BB203. “I don’t think we should be pre-empted from making sure our citizens are protected,” she also said.
HB174 addresses the protection of free speech and rights of individuals, including the right to religious freedom, said the sponsor Hubrecht. "We've gotten so far the other way now that you can't express your religious beliefs without supposedly offending someone," she said. "It's got to become a two-way street, and I think it's gotten to where it's almost become a one-way street. I want to bring some balance back into that."
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has spoken out against BB203, adding that "this horrible piece of legislation will now force city residents to be unwilling participants in the abortion business by requiring business owners and individuals to tacitly approve any 'reproductive health' decisions made by their employees or tenants."
BB203 provides limited exemptions for religious institutions, but does not provide protections to individual business owners who object due to religious reasons. Archdiocesan general counsel Tom Buckley said the measure violates the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court precedent and violates state and federal laws.
Archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate executive director Karen Nolkemper shared in her testimony some of the specific concerns the archdiocese still has about BB203. They include:
• Catholic schools or Catholic Charities agencies could be penalized by the city for not employing individuals who publicly promote the practice of abortion.
• Catholic business owners could be penalized for not including coverage for abortion in their employee benefit packages. Under the terms of ordinance, failure to include coverage to employees who demanded it could be considered an adverse employment action.
• Landlords who do not want to rent to people who are actively associated or involved with the abortion industry, also could be penalized for discrimination.
Individuals of faith and organizations "should be free to operate in accordance with their mission and their religious convictions," Nolkemper said. "And they should be free to do so without interference from politically motivated local ordinances."
In his testimony in favor of HB174, Deacon Sam Lee, a pro-life lobbyist with Campaign Life Missouri, said the bill protects alternatives-to-abortion agencies (there are 69 pregnancy resource centers and 17 maternity homes in Missouri) as well as any individual who does not want to participate in abortion.
He called the bill necessary, because some local governments in other states, including Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., New York City, Austin and San Francisco, have lobbied for ordinances that interfere with free speech rights of alternatives-to-abortion-agencies.
"Without a state law, the City of St. Louis could interfere with the mission of an alternatives-to-abortion agency — saving the lives of the unborn and helping pregnant and postpartum women — and obstruct conscience rights," Deacon Lee said.
In her testimony, Ingrassia said there's "no criminal penalty or large fine for not complying" with BB203. The law is mostly dictated under the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency administrative proceedings, she noted, with a maximum fine of $500.
However, the language of BB203 states that any complaints should be enforced according to the provisions of city’shousing discrimination ordinance (67119), which includes a maximum fine of $500 and imprisonment of up to 90 days.
Others who spoke in favor of HB174 included the Missouri Catholic Conference and Our Lady's Inn, a St. Louis-based maternity home. Those speaking in opposition included the ACLU and a Washington University medical student representing an organization called Future Physicians for Progress.
The House Children and Families Committee could possibly vote on HB174 in the next week. To follow, visit www.stlouisreview.com/bdn.
Missouri House Children and Families Committee:www.stlouisreview.com/bdI
Contact your state representative in favor of HB174: www.house.mo.gov
MCC action alert on HB174: www.stlouisreview.com/bd5
Support alternatives to abortion: www.stlrespectlife.org