LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Thursday rejected a bill that would allow a health-care provider to refuse to provide a service that violates his or her conscience.
House Bill 1628, titled the Healthcare Freedom of Conscience Act, received eight votes in support and 11 against in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. The bill needed 11 votes from the 20-member panel to advance.
The bill by Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, would allow a person or institution that provides health care to refuse to participate in a non-emergency service that contradicts his or her religious, moral or ethical principles. It would prohibit the person or institution from being punished for the refusal through criminal, civil or administrative action.
The measure also would allow a health-care payer such as an insurance company to refuse to pay for a service that violates its conscience.
The bill states that it would not allow a health-care provider or payer to refuse a service based on a person’s identity or status.
Brandt told the committee that examples of services a health-care provider or payer might object to include abortion and gender reassignment surgery.
“When it comes to a health-care worker simply saying, ‘This is one procedure that I prefer not to be involved in,’ we should reasonably accommodate those people so that they’re not themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs,” he said.
Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, said he was concerned about passing a law to protect all deeply held beliefs, noting that “racism is a deeply held belief.”
Smith responded that the bill is about services, not people, and said the bill specifically prohibits discrimination against individuals based on who they are.
State Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe testified against the bill, saying the situation it seeks to address is not “an acute problem right now in our state.”
Bledsoe added, “We have to be very cognizant of the sort of message that a bill like this sends. If you’re a member of any sort of minority group, whether you’re a Christian and you feel like your beliefs are under attack or you’re a Muslim or you’re a member of the LGBT community … these sorts of bills send a message that threatens you.”
Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative Family Council, which asked Smith to file the bill, testified that the measure would benefit patients because of its prohibition against refusing to provide services to a person based on identity or status.
“I would maintain that this puts that in the law for the very first time in Arkansas that you cannot do that,” Cox said.
Teresa Daly, a former pediatrician and rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, testified that the bill would send a bad message.
“As a parent of a gay child, I know what it will signal to her, and it will signal that she is not worth what many of the people in this room are worth, and that is incredibly painful to me,” she said.
Smith told reporters after the meeting he did not immediately know whether he would seek another vote on the bill. He said he believed some of the committee members did not fully understand the measure.
“There were people that were opposed to the bill but maybe did not read the bill,” he said.