HHS mandate: Supreme Court begins to hear arguments

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Or put bluntly, the government mandate to violate your conscience.

It’s as simple as that. No matter how much spin has been spun, and there has been much, it comes down to this.

Do Americans enjoy religious-liberty protections when they are at church, or do Americans enjoy religious-liberty protections when they are Americans?

That’s it. The Supreme Court hears oral arguments this week on that question.

Hobby Lobby is owned by a trust controlled by the Green family, observant Christians who make a point of carrying their faith into the marketplace, stocking Christian products and closing their stores on Sundays. They refuse to comply with parts of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, specifically the provision of products that they regard as actual or potential abortifacients, including intrauterine devices and the so-called morning-after pill, both of which can function to prevent an embryo from implanting in the uterus and thus surviving. Whether these products are properly regarded as abortifacients is a matter of some controversy, but the relevant question is not a technical one about the mechanisms by which these drugs and devices prevent pregnancy. Federal law protects religious liberty with no proviso that matters of conscience must be argued to the satisfaction of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists before legal protections kick in.

Now here’s the money paragraph, the important explanation of the whole thing that helps understand what’s at stake in the claims to protection against government encroachment of religious freedom and conscience rights. Those claims are grounded in the Constitution and RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

While the issue is at heart a constitutional one, Hobby Lobby is not in this instance appealing to the First Amendment but rather to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed by a unanimous House, a near-unanimous Senate, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, and certified as constitutional as applied to the federal government in a 2006 Supreme Court decision. The act sets a high standard that the federal government must meet when it burdens the free exercise of religion and was enacted in response to court decisions that had narrowed First Amendment protections. It is intended to reinstate the “Sherbert test,” which holds that in a case in which the involved parties hold a sincere religious belief and the federal government places a substantial burden on the exercise of that belief, then the federal government must both prove a “compelling state interest” in burdening religious exercise and — perhaps most important in this case — demonstrate that it has sought to secure that compelling interest in the least restrictive fashion.

That’s a two-pronged test the government cannot possibly pass in imposing the HHS mandate.

While it is hardly obvious that there is a compelling state interest in subsidizing access to contraception, which is widely available and inexpensive (a woman who required an emergency dose of Plan B once a quarter would still spend more annually on toothpaste), it is entirely implausible that the least restrictive way of achieving that subsidy is a nationwide legal mandate for coverage of those products at no out-of-pocket expense by every employer in the country offering health insurance — and the federal government will penalize them if they don’t offer it.

So…

Whatever the federal government might have done differently, the express purpose of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is to prevent it from doing what it has done in the Affordable Care Act: ride roughshod over the free exercise of religion whenever doing so proves politically convenient.

The case is about more than the Green family and Hobby Lobby. There are in fact 94 related cases involving 300 plaintiffs representing nearly half the states, from Southern Baptists such as the Greens to Catholic nonprofits and Amish cabinetmakers. The objections to the ACA mandate are neither narrow nor sectarian.

Split decisions from the appellate courts all but guaranteed a Supreme Court hearing of the issue, which will begin tomorrow. The decision will be only incidentally about what kind of health insurance we have — it will be about what kind of country we have.

So here we go.

Whatever the federal government might have done differently, the express purpose of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is to prevent it from doing what it has done in the Affordable Care Act: ride roughshod over the free exercise of religion whenever doing so proves politically convenient.

The case is about more than the Green family and Hobby Lobby. There are in fact 94 related cases involving 300 plaintiffs representing nearly half the states, from Southern Baptists such as the Greens to Catholic nonprofits and Amish cabinetmakers. The objections to the ACA mandate are neither narrow nor sectarian.

Split decisions from the appellate courts all but guaranteed a Supreme Court hearing of the issue, which will begin tomorrow. The decision will be only incidentally about what kind of health insurance we have — it will be about what kind of country we have.

This is about that, and more.

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations on earth. People of a vast array of traditions of faith live here in a harmony that would have been unthinkable in most of the world for most of human history.

One of the ways America has fostered and protected this diversity is by nurturing a robust understanding of religious liberty that includes granting certain exemptions to people who need them in order to be true to their religious faith. Religious exemptions protect people in situations where legislative or executive acts might otherwise unnecessarily force them to violate their consciences…

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations on earth. People of a vast array of traditions of faith live here in a harmony that would have been unthinkable in most of the world for most of human history.

One of the ways America has fostered and protected this diversity is by nurturing a robust understanding of religious liberty that includes granting certain exemptions to people who need them in order to be true to their religious faith. Religious exemptions protect people in situations where legislative or executive acts might otherwise unnecessarily force them to violate their consciences.

In a free, representative republic, it’s hard to imagine why or how government acts would possibly force citizens to violate their consciences. Surely, that cannot stand.

The reason that government is likely to lose in the Hobby Lobby case, however, is that there are so many ways for the government to distribute these drugs—on its own exchanges, through the Title X family-planning program and by cooperating with willing distributors—that do not require the forced participation of conscientious objectors. That presumably is why an effort is now being made to cut back on the robust conception of religious freedom that once united Americans of all faiths and even unbelievers.

The Establishment Clause argument should also fail. That provision exists to prevent the establishment of a national religion or the granting of superior standing to a religion that happens to have the support of most citizens. It would be perverse for a court to use it to punish the laudable practice—dating all the way back to George Washington’s decision to excuse Quakers from his army—of accommodating the free exercise of religion by protecting people whose religious beliefs or practices are not shared by the majority from being compelled even in the absence of a compelling reason to violate their consciences.

The two-pronged test of proving a compelling government interest in pursuing an edict that requires citizens to violate their religious beliefs, and then proving that the means of doing so constitute the least restrictive means possible to do so, is a test the government cannot pass with the HHS mandate, without the help of an activist court.

Oral arguments begin. The court ruling will come later. Stay tuned.

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