In a nation founded upon (at least in part) the ability to practice one’s religious beliefs without government interference, we Americans are in a weird spot. It seems that everywhere we turn, folks who practice their religious beliefs are under assault. Again, weird, since most of us who do practice our faith don’t try to cram it down anyone’s throat. Even groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses – well-known for their door-to-door proselytizing – are happy to step off your front porch if you aren’t interested in what they have to say. (more…)
As 2013 was coming to a close, federal courts issued rulings on three injunctions sought by religious non-profits challenging the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate rules:
• Preliminary injunctions had been awarded in 18 of the 20 similar cases, but the 10th Circuit denied relief to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns from Colorado. However, late in the evening on December 31, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor issued a temporary injunction blocking enforcement, and ordered a response by the federal government by 10:00 am on Friday. Justice Sotomayor’s order applies to the nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and other Catholic nonprofit groups that use the same health plan, known as the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust.
• Earlier in December an Indiana federal district court rejected Notre Dame’s claim in University of Notre Dame v. Sebelius that its rights under Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the 1st Amendment are infringed by applying the accommodation in the final rules to its self-insured employee plan and its health insurance policies offered to students. On December 31, the 7th Circuit denied Notre Dame’s emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal, but ordered expedited briefing and oral argument.
• In Priests for Life v. U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, the D.C. federal district ruled on December 19th that no substantial burden was placed on a pro-life group’s free exercise by requiring it to complete the self-certification form to opt into the accommodation for religious non-profits. But on December 31 the D.C. Circuit granted emergency motions for injunctions pending appeal filed by Priests for Life and by the various plaintiffs in the Catholic Archbishop of Washington case. The court also ordered the two cases consolidated for appeal.
Last week, an exciting new organization called the Transatlantic Christian Council (TCC) hosted its inaugural conference. The theme of the conference was “Sustaining Freedom”, which aligns well with the Council’s mission “to develop a transatlantic public policy network of European and North American Christians and conservatives in order to promote the civic good, as understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition on which our societies are largely based.”
What I find most exciting about this Council, for which I commend Todd Huizinga and Henk Jan van Schothorst on their vision and initiative in founding, is this: like the Acton Institute, the TCC is not exclusively devoted to just one aspect of life, but rather aims to provide a forum for conversation on a broad range of life’s many important and fundamental human questions.
The starting point for these conversations is with a basic concept of human dignity. This concept is rooted in an openness to the idea of man as an image of God — endowed with the capacities for willfulness and reason, a creature and a sub-creator. And it is this understanding of the human person that serves as a point of departure for working through all sorts of interesting questions of politics, economics, liberty, government, religion, and family.
When I mentioned to a friend that I would be travelling to Belgium for this conference, he said to me: “Be sure they don’t euthanize you and harvest your organs!”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s certainly a novel way to wish someone a good trip.”
In January I wrote about how the executive branch had argued that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 should be broadly interpreted in order to impose criminal liability for actions that indirectly result in a protected bird’s death. The administration used that reasoning to file criminal charges against three energy companies.
Yet while one section of the Obama Administration was arguing that they should be able to prosecute energy companies (oil and gas) for killing migratory birds, another section of the Obama Administration was arguing that other companies in the energy industry (wind) should be exempt from prosecution for killing birds. The latter section at least got what it wanted: the wind industry can now apply for a free pass to kill birds:
Increasingly, Americans who adhere to a religion are told they cannot “force their beliefs” on others. Simply stating publicly that one doesn’t believe gays have the right to marry can cost you your career. Literally hundreds of lawsuits are now in motion against the government because employers do not want to be forced to violate their religious beliefs by paying for employees’ contraception and/or abortions.
Lawmakers from both parties and across the political spectrum found common ground and passed, by a near-unanimous vote, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which firmly commits the federal government to protecting and promoting our “inalienable right” to freely exercise religion. As President Clinton remarked when he signed the legislation into law, “the power of God is such that even in the legislative process, miracles can happen.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding a case in a Muskegon, Mich. hospital. According to the ACLU, Tamesha Means was 18 weeks pregnant in December, 2010, when her water broke. A friend brought her to Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon. Ms. Means subsequently made two more trips to this hospital, and her baby, born prematurely, died.
According to a New York Times piece,
…Dr. Douglas W. Laube, an obstetrician at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, described the care Ms. Means received as “basic neglect.” He added, “It could have turned into a disaster, with both baby and mother dying.”
The A.C.L.U. said it had filed suit against the bishops because there had been several cases in recent years in which Catholic hospital policies on abortion had interfered with medical care.
Until 2012, no federal law or regulation required employers to cover contraception or abortifacients in their company health plans. But last month a New York Times Times editorial claimed that “the assertion by private businesses and their owners of an unprecedented right to impose the owners’ religious views on workers who do not share them.”
What changed over the course of a year that now makes it a “war on contraceptives” to oppose adding such coverage? As Ramesh Ponnuru explains, it’s not really about contraceptives but an attack on religion:
If 2011 was marked by a widespread crisis of employers’ imposing their views on contraception on employees, nobody talked about it.
What’s actually new here is the Obama administration’s 2012 regulation requiring almost all employers to cover contraception, sterilization and drugs that may cause abortion. It issued that regulation under authority given in the Obamacare legislation.
The regulation runs afoul of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a Clinton-era law. That act says that the government may impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religious belief only if it’s the least restrictive way to advance a compelling governmental interest. The act further says that no later law should be read to trump this protection unless it explicitly says it’s doing that. The Affordable Care Act has no such language.
Is a marginal increase in access to contraception a compelling interest, and is levying steep fines on employers who refuse to provide it for religious reasons the least burdensome way to further it? It seems doubtful.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a pair of cases that challenge the HHS mandate requiring many private companies to insure contraceptive and abortifacients. The Obama administration asked the high court to review the issue after a federal appeals court in Colorado found in favor of Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based crafts franchise. The court will combine the Hobby Lobby case with lesser-known case involving Conestoga, a Pennsylvania company that lost earlier bids for relief from the mandate.
If you haven’t been following the controversy, here’s what you need to know about the mandate:
What is this contraception mandate everyone keeps talking about?
As part of the universal health insurance reform passed in 2010 (often referred to as “Obamacare”), all group health plans must now provide—at no cost to the recipient—certain “preventive services.” The list of services includes sterilization, contraceptives, and abortifacient drugs.
If this mandate is from 2010, why are we talking about it in 2013?
On January 20, 2012, the Obama Administration announced that that it would not expand the exemption for this mandate to include religious schools, colleges, hospitals, and charitable service organizations. Instead, the Administration merely extended the deadline for religious groups who do not already fall within the existing narrow exemption so that they will have one more year to comply or drop health care insurance coverage for their employees altogether and incur a hefty fine
Is there a religious exemption from the mandate? If so, who qualifies for the exemption?
On Friday a federal judge ruled that an IRS exemption that gives clergy tax-free housing allowances is unconstitutional. The exemption applies to an estimated 44,000 ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and others. If the ruling stands, some clergy members could experience an estimated 5 to 10 percent cut in take-home pay.
Aside from the question of constitutionality, the clergy exemption raises a question that many people — whether religious or not — are likely to be wondering: Why exactly do ministers receive a tax exemption for their housing allowance?
At the website of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, I explain the historical, legal, and ecclesiological reasons for allowing the exemption and why it’s an issue of religious freedom:
According to World News Daily the federal government has enlisted black church denominations to enroll people into Obamacare.
Enroll America, a Washington-based nonprofit staffed in part by ex-Obama presidential campaign workers, is leading the enrollment campaign which saw just over 100,000 people “sign up” in October. Jessica Kendall, director of outreach for Enroll America, calls the task of signing up America’s uninsured the “largest enrollment effort that has ever been done in our history.” Her group is working with a broad coalition, including hospital associations, labor unions, advocacy groups and religious organizations, to persuade people to submit to Obamacare. Enroll America’s “Health Care from the Pulpit” initiative to churches kicked off Sunday, Oct. 27, with “over 50 events across the country to further engage the faith community in education about enrollment,” according to a press release.
In the black church tradition it is not uncommon for churchgoers to be made aware of social welfare through various means, especially after the rollout for the “War on Poverty” programs. However, this development is particularly interesting because there appear to be official partnerships between the federal government and black church denominations to enroll churchgoers in Obamacare.
According to the article, Ashley Allison, the director of constituency engagement for Enroll America, said her group is encouraging churches “to put announcements in the weekly bulletin and make literature available for people to pick up at church.” Enroll America hosted one training event for African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders in Las Vegas—which seems rather odd. I cannot think of another entitlement program that would train religious leaders to facilitate enrollment in local communities. One has to wonder if the black church is becoming a de facto agency of the federal government with this level of participation in the federal program.