Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Sotomayor’s Blow to Religious Liberty

Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of ObamaCare ended the discussion about the president’s signature health care legislation as far as most of the media was concerned. But for Americans whose rights have been infringed by the bill’s mandate requiring business owners to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs, the issue remains a matter of vital concern. On January 1 the penalties associated with that mandate went into effect and the battle in the courts to head off this grievous infringement of religious liberty is meeting with mixed success.

One federal judge blocked the enforcement of the mandate in a lawsuit brought by the founder of Domino’s Pizza, saying the legislation “substantially burdens the exercise of religion.” In doing so, the court prevented the government from levying massive fines on Thomas Monaghan’s property management firm while his challenge to the constitutionality of the provision proceeds through the courts. That ruling comes in the wake of decisions from federal appeals courts in St. Louis and Chicago that stopped the Department of Health and Human Services from punishing those who are fighting the mandate to pay for contraception and abortion drugs. But in a signal defeat for the cause of freedom, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor turned down a similar request from the owners of Hobby Lobby stores and a Christian book store firm. That means these companies will be subjected to millions of dollars in fines for violating the law even though they claim it is a matter of conscience.

At stake in this battle is whether the Religous Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress will prevent the government from compelling Catholics and others to violate the dictates of their faith. On the face of it, they have a strong case for striking this provision down, but the full power of the Justice Department and its army of lawyers who have the enthusiastic support of pro-abortion grops and much of the liberal mainstream media are arrayed against them. That’s why persons of faith who seek to overturn the law have always faced an uphill battle.

Sotomayor’s decision illustrates just how difficult that task may turn out to be. Even if the owners of Hobby Lobby eventually prevail in court and their rights are upheld, a vengeful Obama administration determined to make an example of anyone who crosses them could have already destroyed their business. By sinking them under the weight of fines, the government could drive them out of business before any final decision is handed down.

One needn’t agree with the religious beliefs of the Hobby Lobby owners, or those other individuals who have brought dozens of lawsuits in various federal courts to stop the mandate, in order to see the value of the principle they are attempting to uphold. Nor need one agree with them about abortion or share their qualms about the morality of contraception. The point here is that if ObamaCare is allowed to give the government the power to render Catholic doctrine beyond the pale in this manner, then no one’s faith is safe.

Sotomayor could have ruled in the same manner as some of the appellate panels have already done and simply held off any punishment of the petitioners until the courts decided the case. But in claiming that the rationale for their request was insubstantial, the Obama appointee signaled that she and other liberals view the question of religious freedom as irrelevant to their quest to impose their diktat of universal coverage for contraception and abortion. While Justice Roberts strove to have the courts rise above partisan politics by refusing to let the court stop ObamaCare despite the fact that it violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Sotomayor did not scruple from acting in a manner that seeks to ensure that the president will get his way on this issue one way or the other.

Should Hobby Lobby, Monaghan and other religious believers lose, the result will be a new, more cribbed definition of religious liberty that will bear little resemblance to the sweeping freedom promised in the First Amendment. Though some business owners may falter along the way toward the final resolution of these cases, it is to be hoped that in the end, the Supreme Court will not let this outrageous attack on the Constitution prevail.