While there has been quite a kerfuffle recently over a mythical “war on women”, the weightier issue of a war on religion now has been enjoined. The University of Notre Dame and 42 other Catholic institutions filed lawsuits on Monday against Secretary Sebelius and Health and Human services (HHS). In August of 2011, under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, HHS Issued a mandate requiring religious institutions to provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs including Plan B (“the morning after pill”) and ella (“the week after pill”), as well as sterilization and contraception. While churches are narrowly exempted, other religious institutions such as colleges and charities must comply with the unprecedented edict. The suits filed Monday join previous ones, including three filed by presidents of evangelical colleges and universities.
In January of 2012, posturing by the President and other officials appeared to offer a compromise. But what became of the appearance of walking back such an explosive governmental intrusion into the religious liberties of American religious institutions? The entire charade was bogus. This administration handed out exemptions from Obamacare mandates to corporations like McDonald’s so frequently that each additional episode became laughable. And yet, no exemptions have been granted to secure the religious liberties guaranteed under the mandate of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The administration in January 2012 merely gave institutions a year to comply. They alluded to a possible adjustment to the mandate in the future, and yet, simply allowed the rule to be codified into law as written.
Essentially the administration is saying, ‘We take your religious principles very seriously–so we’re giving you an extra year to get over them,’
noted Hannah Smith, Senior Legal Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
She also stated:
No employer, particularly in this economy, should be forced to make the choice between violating its deeply held religious beliefs or terminating its health insurance plans for employees and paying a heavy fine.
This new mandate is an unprecedented departure from the free exercise of religion that such institutions have been guaranteed traditionally. But the careful guardianship crafted by our Constitution’s Framers and by our legal system seems completely lost on Secretary Sebelius. In the video of a congressional hearing linked here, Secretary Sebelius readily admits her ignorance of the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees. In fact, she did not obtain a legal memo, nor did she consult any Supreme Court decisions on religious liberty before drafting the HHS mandate on abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception in August of 2011.
A perusal of a well-publicized U.S.Supreme Court decision in January of 2012 might have helped prepare the HHS Secretary for her grilling by Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, and the barrage of lawsuits fIled this week. In the court case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly upheld the “ministerial exception” which exempts religious groups from some nondiscrimination laws when picking their ministers.
The ruling allowed religious entities like the Hosanna-Tabor grade school to exercise wide latitude in its firing of an employee. The teacher in the suit, Cheryl Perich, had filed a lawsuit under the American Disabilities Act. The result was a highly unusual, unanimous 9-0 decision. Clearly, our Supreme Court justices of every stripe take religious liberty according to the First Amendment rather seriously.
On freedom of conscience, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.”
This administration’s brash aggression towards religious institutions is a fool’s errand. Perhaps Secretary Sebelius assumed that her stealth assault on freedom of conscience was impervious to ordinary safeguards since she is no mere member of Congress. But no amount of shrouding this HHS edict in the noble garb of a crusade for women’s health alters its overriding effect on the guarantee of religious liberty by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution :
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.