Commentary Magazine


Topic: Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation

SCOTUS Gives Religious Freedom a Hearing

Finally, after three years of debate and litigation, the nation will get an answer. The Health and Human Services Department’s ObamaCare mandate that forces all employers to pay for abortion drugs has been challenged by religious believers in courts across the nation since the passage of the president’s signature health-care legislation in 2010. The federal district and appellate courts have handed down mixed verdicts with some saying that the owners of companies must pay for coverage of services that violate their religious beliefs and others holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects their rights to refrain from supporting acts that violate their conscience. But now that the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear appeals of two such cases in which the appeals courts handed down contradictory rulings, the issue will be settled once and for all.

But more than just the fate of two companies–one an Oklahoma City-based crafts store chain owned by Catholics and the other a Pennsylvania custom furniture manufacturer owned by Mennonites–are at stake in the legal battle that will probably be decided next spring. If the HHS Mandate is overturned by the high court, it will mark a signal victory for religious liberty over the efforts of the Obama administration to keep faith off the public square and out of public life. Liberal defenders of the government say the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation are wrong to say their personal First Amendment right to religious freedom extends to their business. But the plaintiffs and their supporters rightly maintain that what HHS is doing is to strong-arm these business owners into compliance with ObamaCare via a rule that will force them to choose between their faith and the survival of their enterprises. If the HHS Mandate is upheld, it will create a new, cribbed definition of religious freedom that will effectively mean that faith is only something to be practiced in private.

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Finally, after three years of debate and litigation, the nation will get an answer. The Health and Human Services Department’s ObamaCare mandate that forces all employers to pay for abortion drugs has been challenged by religious believers in courts across the nation since the passage of the president’s signature health-care legislation in 2010. The federal district and appellate courts have handed down mixed verdicts with some saying that the owners of companies must pay for coverage of services that violate their religious beliefs and others holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects their rights to refrain from supporting acts that violate their conscience. But now that the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear appeals of two such cases in which the appeals courts handed down contradictory rulings, the issue will be settled once and for all.

But more than just the fate of two companies–one an Oklahoma City-based crafts store chain owned by Catholics and the other a Pennsylvania custom furniture manufacturer owned by Mennonites–are at stake in the legal battle that will probably be decided next spring. If the HHS Mandate is overturned by the high court, it will mark a signal victory for religious liberty over the efforts of the Obama administration to keep faith off the public square and out of public life. Liberal defenders of the government say the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation are wrong to say their personal First Amendment right to religious freedom extends to their business. But the plaintiffs and their supporters rightly maintain that what HHS is doing is to strong-arm these business owners into compliance with ObamaCare via a rule that will force them to choose between their faith and the survival of their enterprises. If the HHS Mandate is upheld, it will create a new, cribbed definition of religious freedom that will effectively mean that faith is only something to be practiced in private.

Liberals are mocking the claim that these business owners have any rights to refuse to fund abortion drugs or even contraception. But the constitutional right to religious freedom is not just about the ability to choose which house of worship to attend or to say private prayers without government interference. Government has no right to tell individuals that they must fund practices that violate their conscience or faith.

Even more contemptible is the attempt by the government and its leftist cheering section to claim that these business owners are imposing their beliefs on their employees, an assertion made by the New York Times earlier this month when it lamented that an appeals court had upheld religious freedom in a related case. The company owners are not requiring their employees to believe as they do or to refrain from having abortions. But they are within their rights to say that if an employee wishes to have one, they should not look to their employers for a subsidy for that act. If the mandate is upheld, then it is not freedom of conscience that is being protected but instead a dubious right to free abortion pills or contraception that cannot be found in any fair reading of the Constitution. It is faith that is under siege in these cases, not abortion rights.

As Appeals Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote in a related case, “The Framers of the Constitution embraced the philosophical insight that government coercion of moral agency is odious.” She went on to write that the mandate is a “compelled affirmation of a repugnant belief” and therefore an unconstitutional burden on free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court will therefore not be deciding the right to abortion or contraception but whether the government’s belief that employers must pay for such services can supersede an employer’s right to free exercise.

Though the fate of ObamaCare will not be decided in these cases, it must be understood that the legislation’s vision of government making decisions about health care practices and policies is integral to the mandate’s attempt to abrogate fundamental constitutional rights. As wrongheaded as Congress was to impose governmental fiats on health care in this manner, the government’s attempt to trample on the rights of religious believers in this fashion is even more offensive. One need not agree with conservative Christians on either abortion or contraception to understand that the underlying principle in this case is the protection of the religious liberty of all Americans. It is to be hoped that the hearing and the decision rendered by the Supreme Court will check the efforts of the federal government to impinge on religious liberty in the name of universal health care. 

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