Rep. Fortenberry: ‘We'll Let the Courts Decide’ If It's Constitutional to Force Companies to Provide Products for Free

By Elizabeth Harrington | February 15, 2012 | 6:31 PM EST

Rep, Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) (AP photo)

( – Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) wouldn’t say, when asked, if it is constitutional for the federal government to force private companies to offer products for free.

“We’ll let the courts decide that,” Fortenberry said.

Fortenberry spoke with after a press conference in support of legislation he has proposed to squelch a Health and Human Services rule that requires all health insurance plans to provide contraception, sterilizations and abortifacients to women, free of charge, even if that is against the religious or moral beliefs of employers.

Fortenberry said forcing health insurers to provide a product free of charge is a “subset” of the larger debate over religious liberty. asked: “Beyond the religious liberty issue, is it Constitutional for the federal government to force private companies to offer products for free?”

Here’s a transcript of the exchange:

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.): Well, obviously that’s about to be decided in the court system.” “Right, but—

Rep. Fortenberry: “In terms of the larger mandate.” “I’m talking about the President’s compromise.  Do you think that’s also an issue?”

Rep. Fortenberry: “I don’t know how to, that’s a subset of this whole debate, isn’t it?  The bigger issue is forcing someone to provide something that violates their deeply held beliefs.  But forcing the government—or using the government at all to force someone to provide a service for free, could it be an infringement upon the First Amendment rights to free speech, free association? We’ll let the courts decide that.”

If the player does not load, please check that you are running the latest version of Adobe Flash Player.

The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act that would virtually rescind the Obama administration mandate on religious institutions which object. But critics say it ignores the fact that under the HHS mandate, individuals would still be required to purchase insurance from companies which are mandated to offer contraceptive and abortifacient coverage.

The HHS regulation, set to go into effect on Aug. 1, has been condemned by various religious groups and at least 158 members of Congress as a violation of religious liberty.