The Obama administration’s effort to force religious organizations and employers to pay for services that violate their beliefs largely provided the basis for the presidential reelection campaign’s faux “war on women” talking point. As such, it must be considered a success as it turned a debate on the constitutionality of the ObamaCare mandate forcing all employers to pay for contraception and abortion drugs into one about the supposed indifference to the rights of women on the part of conservatives. But the legal battle over the fate of the Health and Human Services Department mandate in the courts is not going quite so well for the president. Yesterday, the administration received its sternest judicial rebuke yet as the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York granted a permanent injunction against the enforcement of the mandate against four nonprofits operated by the Catholic Diocese of New York. As the New York Times reports:
The ruling, by Brian M. Cogan of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, found that forcing the groups to authorize a third party to provide contraceptive care still violated their religious beliefs even if they were not financially supporting contraception. Churches are already exempt from the mandate to provide contraceptive care.
This is just one of the 88 cases that have been brought against the government by those rightly citing the mandate as a violation of their constitutional rights. But this is the first time the plaintiffs have received a permanent injunction that prevents the government from either enforcing the provision or levying crippling fines against violators. The U.S. Supreme Court will eventually settle this question. But until that happens lower courts still have the ability to bring down financial ruin upon dissenters against the mandate. Though liberals have attempted to spin this issue as one in which church-run agencies (in this case, two high schools and two health-care systems) or private employers are imposing their beliefs on their employees, in fact it is the government that is forcing believers and faith-based institutions to violate their beliefs. The victory in Brooklyn, like other triumphs for the mandate critics in other courts, is one more indication that the legal tide may be turning against a liberal effort to prioritize a vision of national health care over the First Amendment.
It bears repeating that one needn’t share the Catholic beliefs about contraception or abortion put forward by the church or other believers (such as the owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of stores that will have their appeal of the mandate heard by the Supreme Court) to realize that what is at stake in these cases is nothing less than the future of religious freedom in this country.
Neither the church nor private businesses are preventing their employees from using contraception or having abortions. What they are doing is saying is that a law that forces them to pay for such services despite their religious principles against doing so is patently unconstitutional. Only in the legal universe of ObamaCare, which puts forward the dubious notion that not only do Americans have the right to use contraception or abortion but also that everyone is entitled to have their employers pay for it regardless of their religious principles, is this controversial. The notion that the refusal of religious believers to subsidize behavior that offends their faith is a form of discrimination against women is a legal absurdity. As the Diocese correctly noted in a statement:
“The court has correctly cut through the artificial construct which essentially made faith-based organizations other than churches and other houses of worship second-class citizens with second-class First Amendment protections,” Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said in a statement.
The point here is that a definition of religious liberty in which faith has no place in the public square is one that is inconsistent with the Constitution as well as with the principles of a free society. Religious freedom is not just the right to pray at home or in church, synagogue, or mosque but the ability to live one’s faith in public. While the Obama administration’s effort to provide universal health-care coverage may be well-intentioned, the fact that it views its mandates as superseding the First Amendment rights of citizens is an ominous indication of what happens when government gives itself such powers.
The injunction granted in Brooklyn is but one skirmish in what has been a long legal war. But it is encouraging to see that in this case, as in others, there are judges who still value freedom more than a belief in the power of big government to impose its values on the people.