WASHINGTON (CNS) — In two letters to members of Congress, the chairmen of four committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged action to protect the poor and to enact conscience protections for medical workers and insurers.

A third letter by the chairmen of two other committees encouraged the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in backing increases in funding for the E-Rate program, which supports Internet access in schools.

The letters, dated Nov. 17 and 18, came a few days after the bishops completed their annual fall meeting and as Congress was going back to work in its post-election lame-duck session.

The agenda before Congress before its expected adjournment around Dec. 11 includes funding government operations, whether by passing one omnibus or multiple appropriations bills, or adopting a continuing resolution to keep things running until the 114th Congress convenes in January.

Also likely up for consideration are bills to fund the fight against Ebola, to extend various types of tax cuts and to address the battle against the Islamic State terrorist organization.

Another issue is the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect medical workers’ right to decline to participate in elective abortions because of their religious or moral objections.

The bill would prohibit federal, state and local governments that receive federal funds from requiring health care providers and insurance plans to provide abortion despite personal moral objections of participants. The Senate bill has never been taken up by a committee.

In a letter on federal spending and taxes, the chairmen of domestic and international policy committees urged members of Congress to “draw a ‘circle of protection’ around the many programs that serve poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad.”

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, chairman of the Committee on International Peace and Justice, offered three criteria for making “difficult budgetary choices.”

They include:

— Assess every budget choice for how it protects or threatens human life and dignity.

— Measure budget proposals by how they affect those who are hungry, homeless, unemployed and impoverished.

— Recognize that government and other institutions share responsibility to promote the common good of all.

A homeless man reads a book in early July on a sidewalk in downtown Baltimore. The U.S. bishops in three separate letters urged Congress to act on poverty, conscience protection and Internet access. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

That letter went on to say that a just framework for tax and spending priorities “cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, raising adequate revenues, addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly, and eliminating unnecessary spending when possible, including on the military, nuclear weapons, and agricultural subsidies.”

They said programs that provide food, housing, medical care, nutrition assistance and tax breaks for the poor are essential parts of the safety net that helps vulnerable people live lives of dignity.

The domestic and international policy chairmen also talked about their concerns about budget constraints on international aid programs.

“Americans are a generous people, but our international assistance ranks near the bottom of donor countries as a percentage of national income,” Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantu wrote. Poverty-focused international assistance programs constitute less than 1 percent of the federal budget, they said, and have always enjoyed bipartisan support.

With multiple crises expanding demand for humanitarian and disaster assistance, they said it is crucial to expand funding, particularly in the Ebola crisis. Long-term programs that support agricultural development as well as programs that fund access to water, education, food and other resources “are helping families and communities to step out of poverty,” they said.

A second letter from Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, encouraged support for the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act. Their letter put the legislation in the context of recent requirements by California’s Department of Managed Health Care that all insurance plans under its jurisdiction include coverage for elective abortions.

“This mandate has no exemption for religious or moral objections, and is being enforced against religious universities, schools and even churches,” the archbishops’ letter said. “Similar proposals have emerged in Washington and other states. California’s action clearly violates federal law.”

They said the nondiscrimination legislation would strengthen an existing federal policy that prohibits discrimination against recipients of federal funds who don’t participate in providing abortions, including in insurance plans.

The letter said that the only penalty under the current code is withdrawal of funds provided through the departments of Labor or Health and Human Services. The California authorities behind its requirement “believe it is subject to legal challenge and is too sweeping ever to be invoked,” Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori said.

They urged members of Congress to incorporate the nondiscrimination bill into “must-pass funding legislation.”

“The crisis in California requires Congress to reaffirm a principle that has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support: Government should not force hospitals, doctors, nurses and other providers to stop offering or covering much-needed legitimate health care because they cannot in conscience participate in destroying a developing human life,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, another piece of legislation that faith-based organizations have actively opposed failed by one vote in the Senate Nov. 18. A bill that would have permitted construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline to carry Canadian crude oil to Gulf Coast refineries failed to get the veto-proof 60 votes in a test vote. The bill passed the House a few days earlier. Republican supporters of the project plan to reintroduce the legislation in January.

A third letter from the chairmen of the bishops’ communications and Catholic education committees to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler thanked him for supporting increased and permanent funding for the E-Rate program. It was created to ensure all children have access to the Internet in their schools.

The letter from communications chairman Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, and education chairman Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, said 3,200 of the 6,600 Catholic schools in the U.S. participated in the E-Rate program last year.

“Despite the glowing success of the program, E-Rate has been consistently and severely underfunded,” they said.

“Your proposal to fund the E-Rate program at $3.9 billion annually will allow public and private schools who have been unable to participate in the program due to lack of funds, to provide 21st-century education and learning with the additional funding connecting students and their teachers to high-speed broadband,” the letter said.

They encouraged the other FCC commissioners to follow Wheeler’s lead and adopt his funding proposal.