Last year’s Supreme Court decision declaring ObamaCare constitutional ensured that the massive expansion of government power would go forward, but it did not remove all legal challenges to the legislation. Religious organizations rightly objected to the bill’s mandate that even those who objected on religious grounds had to pay for services that violated their beliefs. Opponents of the mandate were falsely portrayed last year as taking part in a Republican “war on women” that helped whip up support for President Obama and the Democrats. Yet Church groups and others who opposed being compelled to pay for abortion drugs and contraception services rejected those slurs and challenged the mandate in court with lawsuits that were proceeding with mixed success.
But after today, some of those suits will be dropped after the White House announced a limited retreat on the issue. According to reports, the administration will no longer insist that religious non-profits observe the mandate or be in any way made to pay for services that offend their consciences. This is very good news for church institutions that were not previously exempted. But it is by no means the end of the story. Under the revised rules, individual business owners—such as those who run the Hobby Lobby store chain—who similarly object on religious grounds, are still liable to ruinous penalties amounting to millions of dollars. This amounts to a cribbed definition of religious freedom that limits its expressions only to non-profits and houses of worship, but forces all others to bend to the dictates of the federal government even at the cost of their right to practice their faith.
It needs to be restated that one needn’t share the views of the Catholic Church about contraception or abortion to understand that what is at stake here is a principle of religious freedom that ought not to be sacrificed. The notion of universal and free contraception insurance coverage may be popular and even desirable for those who have no qualms about the government’s intrusion into this sphere of the economy or the consequent ruinous costs to both the taxpayers and the healthcare system. But however much the idea of free contraception appeals to some people, it is not a constitutional right. Nor is it a value that ought to trump the primary guarantees of the First Amendment that protect liberty of faith.
The White House retreat on the issue to the extent of exempting church institutions including schools is a sign of progress. It’s also intended to separate the church from individual believers whose rights will not be protected by this compromise. The church has been wrongly portrayed as trying to thwart the availability of contraception even though it is doing no such thing. The point of the administration’s campaign on this issue was not, as they claimed, to protect the health of women but to demonize those who stood up for their rights. But however much this retreat will be welcomed, it should not cause those who have fought this mandate to back down from their efforts to ensure that all believers and not just those registered as non-profits are allowed to opt out of a system that tramples on their faith.
At the core of this struggle is the question of whether a government that has given itself more power has the right to run roughshod over the First Amendment in order to satisfy the liberal ambition to move toward a national health care system. Religious freedom does not consist merely of the right to preach in churches or synagogues, but in allowing those who believe to fully participate in society. If the mandate tramples faith by individuals in this manner, it means that faith is no longer welcome in the public square but instead must be segregated and confined to houses of worship. Though the church is happily no longer in peril of such compulsion, others remain in the government’s cross hairs. Their challenge should continue and be rewarded with success in the courts.