An important victory was won today for religious freedom. In a well-reasoned decision, Judge Brian Cogan of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, issued a permanent injunction barring the enforcement of the HHS Mandate against Catholic agencies in the Archdiocese.
This is not the final stroke of victory against this iniquitous and repressive mandate, as we might hope. But as Winston Churchill once said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The key element in Judge Cogan’s finding was his specific rejection of the Administration’s minimalistic approach to religious liberty. The Administration continues to operate on the view that religion is a private matter. It apparently believes that any time a person or organization steps into the public square in any way, they leave their religious freedom behind, and can be compelled to conform their every action to secularist rules of behavior and thought.
Judge Cogan rejected that view. He rightly found that the HHS Mandate improperly requires church agencies to perform acts that are directly contrary to our Catholic faith — by forcing them to affirmatively endorse and facilitate access to abortion, contraception and sterilization, under penalty of ruinous fines. The essential quote from the decision:
[The plaintiffs] have demonstrated that the mandate, despite accommodation, compels them to perform acts that are contrary to their religion… there can be no doubt that the coercive pressure here is substantial… and the Government has failed to show that the Mandate is the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest.
This is a very important point, and one that should be axiomatic to anyone who believes in ordered liberty. If religious freedom means anything, it means that the government can’t force people to do things that they believe God has forbidden. For people of faith, there is a hierarchy of authority, and it is unjust for the government to try to arrogate to itself the ultimate authority over people’s consciences. Coercion on matters of conscience are a gross violation of human rights.
Pope Francis has made this point forcefully in Evangelii Gaudium, saying
“A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism.” (255)
This fundamental principle underlies Judge Cogan’s well-reasoned decision. At some point, one hopes that the Administration will awaken, and recall that there are necessary limits on state power, if a nation, and its people, are to be truly free.