Posts Tagged ‘HHS Mandate’

Victory for Religious Freedom

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited ruling on the HHS Mandate cases that involved the Little Sisters of the Poor, several Catholic dioceses, and a number of other Christian organizations. It is a bit of a disappointment that the Court didn’t rule explicitly on the merits of the religious liberty issues, and the case will linger on for a while in the lower courts. Still, given the divisions in the Court after the death of Justice Scalia, I have to consider this to be a major victory.

The Court unanimously decided to send the cases back to the Circuit Courts, which had previously issued split decisions on the cases. The Supreme Court instructed the lower courts to work out a resolution that would ensure that the religious non-profits would not have to do anything to facilitate the provision of morally offensive services beyond contracting with their insurance company for a policy that excludes them. That will then permit the government to come up with a way to ensure that the services are still offered to the employees of the non-profits. Most important, the Court also ruled that the religious non-profits could not be fined or penalized by the government for taking their stand in defense of their religious liberties.

There are a couple of crucial take-aways from this.

  • All along, the argument by the religious non-profits has been that they don’t want to be involved in providing abortion and contraception services that they find morally offensive.
  • This ruling vindicates that argument, and sends a clear signal to the government that they can’t force religious people to violate their religious beliefs by threatening them with ruinous fines.
  • The ruling also makes clear that it is not the business of the government or courts to tell people when their religious beliefs are burdened by a law. The Court’s decision is a direct rebuke to the lower courts who substituted their judgement about Catholic and Christian belief for the plaintiffs.
  • The government has not been told in no uncertain terms that they have to be more accommodating of religious belief, and more creative in coming up with ways to achieve their goals without burdening religious beliefs.
  • The government’s parsimonious view of religious freedom has now been dealt its fourth consecutive major blow — starting with the Hosanna Tabor case, through Hobby Lobby, and now with Zubik, the Court is sending a clear message that the constitutional recognition of religous freedom has to be given special weight when it is negatively impacted by government policies.

Major kudos have to go out the defenders of religious freedom at the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom, who gave these cases the benefit of their great legal skills. But more than anything, credit must be given to the Little Sisters of the Poor, Bishop Zubik, Archbishop Wuerl, Priests for Life, and the Christian Colleges who were the plaintiffs in these cases, and who carried the banner for our natural right to practice our faith free of government coercion.

James MadisonGeorge Washington, and Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

There is growing reason to hope that the long battle to defend religious freedom against the HHS Mandate may soon be favorably resolved.

You will recall that the “HHS mandate” comes from a provision in the “Affordable Care Act” (the “ACA”, which is typically being called “Obamacare”) that requires all employers who offer health insurance to include coverage for “preventive services”. The term “preventive services” has been defined by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to include contraceptive drugs and devices (including “emergency contraception”, which causes early abortions) and sterilization operations. Churches and other purely religious organizations are exempted from this mandate, but many religious and other organizations are not. As a result, they have been in court trying to vindicate their right to conscientious objection — they don’t want to cooperate in the provision of services or products that are against their religious beliefs.

There was a significant victory in 2014 when the right of two family-owned corporations won their case before the U.S. Supreme Court (the  Hobby Lobby case). But now the Court is considering a major case involving numerous religious organizations who are not exempt, and who are facing massive fines if they don’t knuckle under. The most prominent of these organizations is the Little Sisters of the Poor, but there are other Catholic and Protestant organizations as well. The principal argument of these organizations is that the government is requiring them to file forms that essentially allows the government to “hijack” their health plan to provide services that they consider morally evil.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court in March. Usually, we would expect a decision in late June, but things in the Court have become complicated by the death of Justice Scalia — cases that might otherwise have been decided by a 5 to 4 vote would likely now result in a 4 to 4 split Court.  Perhaps becuase of this dilemma, the Court did something very unusual.  They asked the parties to submit additional briefs, in response to a suggestion from the Court that there may be a way to resolve the case, by permitting employees to receive the offensive services without any action by the religious groups. This was encouraging — it suggested that the Court was sympathetic to the religious liberty arguments, and was seeking a way to protect them.

Now the religious organizations and the government have filed their briefs. The Little Sisters et al. readily agreed to the Court’s suggestion, saying that they could comply with an arrangement where they are not required to take any action that would trigger the provision of the services, and if the services are actually provided by a separate insurance plan (even if it is run by their regular insurance carrier). This is all that the religious organizations have ever wanted — to be left alone to do their work, without getting dragged into anyone’s sex lives. In effect, they were saying to the Court, “This is the solution that we would have suggested to the government years ago, if they had only asked”.

The government, for its part, reacted by quibbling, complaining, and digging their heels in. They complained about having to file a new brief. They insisted that no further concessions were necessary to protect the religious groups’ consciences — as if they knew better what is in violation of Catholic or Protestant moral teachings. They groused that the Court’s suggestion would require changes to other sections of the law and regulations, as if that were something unheard-of, rather than the commonplace result of any litigation of this type. They continued to fantasize that any further accommodation would lead to a parade of horribles — endless further litigation, thousands of women without health care, etc. And in the end, as if they were swallowing nasty-tasting medicine, they kind-of, sort-of, very reluctantly maybe agreed that the Court’s suggestion would be barely acceptable.

This ungracious reply hurts the government’s credibility, and is cause to be hopeful for a positive result. The Court now has reason to wonder why the case is even before them, and has a clear way to resolve it.  All they need do is issue a simple opinion, stating that the government has failed to establish a compelling reason to force the Little Sisters et al. to cooperate with the HHS Mandate, and ordering the settlement that the Court suggested, to which both the government (however grudgingly) and the Sisters have now agreed.

That would end this long nightmare, and vindicate the right to conscience of religious organizations. But it also raises a troubling question — if such a common-sense solution was available all this time, why did the government insist on forcing the cooperation of the religious groups? I know of no other answer, other than the Administration’s well-established hostility to traditional religious values, and their complete dedication to the spread of the ideology of sexual liberation, against any opposition.

Yet Another Alleged “Accommodation”

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

The Administration has announced yet another set of new rules for the HHS abortion/contraception mandate, affecting religious non-profits (the so-called “accommodation” class) and closely-held for-profit corporations (e.g, Hobby Lobby).

Remember that under the most recent version of the oft-amended rules, religious non-profits that wanted to take advantage of the accommodation had to file a document (“Form 700″) with their insurer. This document stated their objections to the coverage, and was the trigger for the insurance company to offer the benefits to the employees. The objection was that Form 700 was tantamount to signing a permission slip for immorality, and being required to fill it out was therefore a violation of religious and free speech rights.

In these new rules, the Administration adopted the approach previously granted by the Supreme Court to the Little Sisters of the Poor and Wheaton College. Now, to qualify for the accommodation, the religious non-profits can file a statement of objection with the government. The government will then contact the insurance company and make arrangements for the coverage to be offered to the employees.

It’s not clear whether this will be sufficient to protect the rights of the religious non-profits like the Little Sisters, Catholic Charities, and Christian colleges.  Their insurance plans will still be required to cover abortion-causing drugs and other offensive services (e.g., sterilization). There is also still the issue of self-insured entities, which will be directly paying for immoral things.  There’s also a concern about whether the insurance companies will be passing on the costs to the employers so that they will still be paying for the offensive services. We also have no way of knowing how the courts will view this new development — will the non-profits start losing cases now that the Administration has come this far?  We’ll have to wait for USCCB and other attorneys to analyze the new rules in detail.

It appears also that closely-held for-profit businesses with religious objections (e.g., Hobby Lobby), will also be able to take advantage of the same procedure as the religious non-profits, and thus qualify for the accommodation. This was in response to the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case.  The rules aren’t specific on which corporations will be given this protection, so it remains to be seen how broadly their religious liberty rights will be respected.

This is yet another step in the Administration’s on-going campaign to normalize contraception and abortion as being essential to women’s health, and a standard part of health insurance policies.  It is also yet another example of their deafness to the objections of religious entities and people, who do not wish to be forced to violate their beliefs.

The real solution to this problem is for the Administration to permit anyone with conscientious objections to be exempted entirely from the abortion/contraception mandate.  That doesn’t seem possible, given their deep commitment to a Culture of Death ideology, under which fertility is a curse, new life is the enemy, and religious believers are in the way.

The Enemies of Religious Freedom Declare Themselves

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

There have been many results from the Supreme Court’s religious freedom ruling in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case.  One is that we can more readily identify many people who either lack fundamental reading comprehension skills or are subject to such ideological blindness that they egregiously mis-characterize what the case actually held.

Perhaps most important, though, is that we can now see very clearly who the enemies of religious freedom are — and we can see that they are heavily represented in the Democratic Party delegations in Congress.

This can be seen very plainly from new bills introduced in both the House and the Senate (S.2578 and H.R.5051), reportedly in consultation with the Administration.  These bills purport to be a way of overturning the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood decision, and forcing for-profit businesses to comply with the HHS mandate to provide insurance coverage for abortion-causing drugs, contraception, and sterilization.

But they go much, much further than that.  In fact, they directly and seriously endanger the religious freedom of every church and religious non-profit, and any other organization that is operated by faith-based persons who don’t want to cooperate with evil.  This is a proposal of “startling breadth” (to quote Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood), and astonishing audacity.

As with every bit of legislation the devil (literally) is in the details.  So let’s break down the actual language of the bill, and explain what it means.  Here is what the House version of the bill says (in italics), with my analysis to follow:

(a) In General — An employer that establishes or maintains a group health plan for its employees (and any covered dependents of such employees) shall not deny coverage of a specific health care item or service with respect to such employees (or dependents) where the coverage of such item or service is required under any provision of Federal law or the regulations promulgated thereunder.

The key word here is “employer”.  Nowhere in the bill does it define that word, so it is an outright lie to claim that the bill is limited to overturning the Supreme Court’s decision, which was limited to family-owned corporations.  This bill would instead reach every single employer in the United States that has an employee health plan — individual business owners, churches, schools.  Nobody would be exempted.

It would also cover any health care “item or service” required to be covered by federal law or regulation — which is so broad as to potentially include any number of evils our federal government might choose, such as abortion, contraception, IVF, sex-change operations, and euthanasia drugs.

The significance of this becomes even more clear when we look at another section of the bill:

(b) Application — Subsection (a) shall apply notwithstanding any other provision of Federal law, including [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].

This would give employers essentially no defense to any law passed by Congress or imposed by executive fiat that would substantially burden their faith by requiring them to cooperate with evil.  In other words, people of faith would be reduced to second-class citizen status.  This echoes infamous prior court decisions, as if the bill’s sponsors thought that religious employers “had no rights which the [government] was bound to respect” (to quote the Dred Scott decision], or as if they were not “recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense” (to quote Roe v. Wade).

It gets even worse — here’s where the real evil lies:

(c) Regulations — The regulations [relating to the current HHS mandate] shall apply with respect to this section.  The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury may modify such regulations consistent with the purpose and findings of this Act.

In other words, the government shall have carte blanche to change the HHS mandate at a whim, or to impose any other mandate they wish.  So there is no limit to what can be done by a future administration with even more commitment to the Cult of Moloch (i.e., the Planned Parenthood, pro-death agenda) than the current regime.  Nothing would stop them from removing the current HHS mandate exemption for churches and “accommodation” for religious non-profits, and enact regulations that would require coverage for abortion, euthanasia, you name it — and there would be no defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

If there were any further question about the fragility of religious freedom in America today, this bill removes any doubt.  The sponsors of this wicked bill have openly declared themselves to be enemies of religious freedom.

Here is a list of the House sponsors — 142 as of the date this is posted, all of them Democrats.  Here are the Senate sponsors — 42 of them, all Democrats, including the original sponsor of RFRA, our own Senator Charles Schumer. If your representative is on the list, contact them right away.

Nelson Mandela once said “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.”  Ask your representative why they don’t agree, and remember well the answer, when they come asking for your vote.

Getting Past the Hysteria

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case has certainly been the cause of much controversy. This is natural, and to be expected, since it touches upon so many key issues in the so-called “culture war”, and it was both a hotly contested and much anticipated decision.

But much of the reaction to the Court’s decision has been, well, a bit unhinged. Some have claimed that the Court was casting women back into virtual slavery. One legal commentator for a major newspaper stated openly — and bizarrely — that the reason for the Court’s majority ruling was simply that they lacked a uterus.  Right.

Why all the hysteria?

I think much of it is a result of the nature of the controversy itself — one that goes to the heart of conflicting visions of who we are.

One of the key issues underlying this case is the role of women in society, and how that is to be assured. Everyone agrees that women should be a full and equal participants in society, free from unfair treatment. But we are in a pluralistic society, and there are many views on how that is to be accomplished, which necessarily involves differing views on the questions of fertility, sexuality, human life.

Many women and couples consider controlling their fertility to be a core value, and have organized their lives around it. They believe that easy, low-cost access to contraceptives is essential to their lives.  They view anything that works against that value, and, indeed, anything that casts doubts upon it or appears to disagree with it, as a direct attack on their self-definition and identity.

We disagree with that value. But, in our pluralistic society, it is a reality that we must recognize.  The fact is that those views have a place at the table in the public discussion.

But pluralism is a two-way street. As Catholics, we have a different view of sexuality, fertility, and human life.  Our values are based on our faith, reason, and a particular understanding of the nature of the human person. We believe that fertility is a gift, not an “unwanted physical condition”. It’s a blessing given to us by God, inherent in human nature as male and female, and not a curse. To deny this is to deny an essential part of who we are, and to set us at war with ourselves.  As a result, we believe that the “contraceptive mentality” is bad for individuals, relationships, and society.  We are convinced (largely from our own failings and hard-earned experience) that the virtue of chastity is a beautiful, beneficial way for people to live and love.

We also believe in the sanctity of human life, from the first moment of conception. It is a scientific fact, not a matter of religious belief, that at the moment of conception a new, individual, unrepeatable human being comes into existence. We also believe, based both on faith and reason, that it is a grave injustice to deliberately end the life of any innocent human being, and is a sad failure in our duty to love one another.

We have also organized our lives around these values, which are central to our religious faith.  It’s not just something that we do on Sunday morning, or in the privacy of our homes.  It’s essential to our self-worth and identity, and it affects all aspects of our lives.

We understand that many people disagree with us — just as we disagree with them.   But, again, in our pluralistic society, it is a reality that others must recognize.  The fact is that our views have a place at the table in the public discussion.  In the end, people should certainly be free to make their own decisions about fertility and sexuality and the meaning of their lives – but so should religious people.

The American way is to guarantee the freedom, equality and autonomy of everyone, including religious people, to live lives of integrity, in keeping with their core values.   We have long recognized that.  Our laws are full of religious accommodations, like the exemption from the draft for Quakers, and the freedom from saying the Pledge of Allegiance for Jehovah’s Witnesses.  This is a matter of basic respect, civility, and just plain good manners. 

The bottom line is that there is a serious conflict of values going on here, one that is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve definitively.  There’s no easy answer, no magic bullet, that will solve all the disputes and make everyone happy.  And “winner take all” is a terrible way to conduct politics — some people will triumph, but it also means that many of our neighbors will be “losers”.   That’s no way to have a healthy community.

People naturally respond emotionally, even hysterically, when they’re scared that their way of life and values are threatened.  Even though we won this particular case, we’re scared too — our religious freedom is very fragile right now.

So maybe it would be a good idea to turn the volume down a bit, recognize the raw feelings on all sides, and try to find a way that we can preserve as much as possible of everyone’s values, while preserving a sense of unity, solidarity, and mutual love.

An Encouraging Victory for Religious Liberty

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

The Supreme Court has issued a very important ruling on the HHS mandate.  By a narrow 5 to 4 majority, the Court found in favor of the religious liberty rights of two family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.  The Court held that they do not have to fund insurance coverage for abortion-causing contraceptives that they consider to violate their religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.

This is a significant victory for religious liberty. It shows that the government does not have unlimited power to force people to violate their beliefs. It is also a vindication for all those who have objected to the HHS mandate, and who have defended religious freedom.

There has been, and will continue to be, a great deal of commentary on this decision.  At this point, though, it’s valuable to make sure that we understand clearly just what the Court did, and what it did not do:

  • The decision was was based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), and not the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.   However, the Court recognized that RFRA offers broader protection to religious liberty than the First Amendment.
  • The decision does not in any way restrict access to contraceptives, nor will it impose any additional costs on women who seek them.  This ruling is very limited — it just requires the government to find some other way to accomplish the basic (and in my view, lamentable) goal of the HHS mandate — free contraceptives — without requiring the corporations to pay for them.
  • However, the ruling does mean that the government, in pursuit of its public policy goals, cannot impose substantial burdens on religious believers, without seeking some way to accommodate or exempt them.
  • It is not clear what impact this decision will have — if any — on the challenges brought against the HHS mandate by religious non-profit organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic Charities.   There is much speculation about this, even to the point of very close analysis of a particular sentence in the majority opinion, but that’s all it is — speculation.  The Court specifically left that issue open for a future decision.
  • This case upholds the idea that corporations have legal standing under RFRA (in legal parlance, they are “persons” within the meaning of the statute).  The Court recognized that corporations are just vehicles through which real, live human beings act, and, in some cases, exercise their own constitutional rights.  This is an important recognition of the Catholic social teaching about the value of mediating institutions that operate in society and stand between the state and individuals.
  • The ruling was limited by the Court to closely-held corporations that are controlled by religious people who operate with explicitly religious missions.  It does not give carte blanche to all corporations to ignore generally applicable laws.
  • Nor does the case give automatic permission for religious people to engage in discrimination on account of race, sex, etc.  Despite the fear-mongering in the dissenting opinion and in the media, this notion was specifically ruled out in the majority and concurring opinions.  Any claim for a religious exemption will still have to satisfy the scrutiny of a court, applying the standards of RFRA to the particular facts of each individual situation.
  • The Court did not strike down the Affordable Care Act or the HHS mandate in general.  That was not at issue in the case at all.
  • The discussion and debate about this issue, and about the general intersection of law and religion, will certainly continue.  A pluralistic society like ours should recognize and respect a broad scope for the fundamental human right to freedom of conscience, consistent with public order and safety.

    So we have much to be thankful for.  Please give thanks to God for the wisdom of the Justices in the majority of the Supreme Court, and for the courage and persistence of the owners of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood and their attorneys, particularly those at the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom.

    The Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS Mandate

    Monday, January 13th, 2014

    [Last week, I was invited to participate in an online debate at U.S. News and World Report, about the lawsuit brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor against the HHS Mandate.  Here is what I contributed.]

    The Little Sisters of the Poor have dedicated their lives to giving witness to their Catholic faith by providing nursing home care for elderly needy people.   They do beautiful work, and are extraordinarily dedicated. You would think our society would cherish this mission and help it succeed.

    Instead, the Administration is forcing the Sisters into a terrible “Sophie’s choice” — violate their faith, or be forced out of business.  The issue is the “HHS Mandate” — the requirement that all employer health insurance policies include contraceptives (including “emergency contraception”, which can cause early abortions) and sterilization.  Catholics, and many others, object to this because those services directly contradict our belief in the sanctity of human life and sexuality.

    The Administration has created a narrow exemption for churches, but not for religious non-profit organizations like the Sisters’ nursing homes.  The best the Administration offers is an “accommodation”.  But to qualify, the Sisters have to file a “permission slip” directing their insurance company  to provide the offensive coverage.

    This is what the Sisters, and other religious organizations, can’t accept.  Filing that “permission slip” means they would be directly cooperating in something forbidden by their faith.  The government doesn’t have the right to force anyone to do that.

    Would anyone think it is acceptable for the government to force the Sisters to sign a form that gives explicit permission for someone to come into their nursing homes to euthanize their patients?  Of course not  — it would be an unthinkable violation of their religious freedom.  And remember, the Sisters are not imposing their beliefs on anyone — their employees, who freely chose to work for them, will still be free to obtain those services elsewhere.   Only the Sisters are being forced to violate their beliefs.

    This is not an abstract legal controversy — the real-world stakes are very high.  For standing up for their faith, the Sisters are facing fines of $100 per day per employee as of January 1.  They employ hundreds of people at their thirty nursing homes.  So do the math — they are looking at fines of over $50 million per year, which would put them out of business.

    The real victims of that would be the poor elderly people the Sisters serve, who would lose such wonderful care.  That would defeat the good intentions of the Affordable Care Act — ensuring health care for all, especially the most vulnerable.  That’s surely not in the public interest.

    Yet the Administration won’t even agree to delay the fines so the Sisters can argue their case on appeal — even though they’re now letting businesses drop health insurance for their employees completely, with no fine at all.   This isn’t public policy, it’s a coercive ideology that considers contraception, sterilization and abortion to be “sacred ground”, and that will brook no dissent from people of faith.

    All of society is enriched when religious groups serve needy people.  Only ideology is served by the Administration’s intolerance against the Little Sisters of the Poor.

    The HHS Mandate — Where We Stand, In Plain Language

    Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

    The HHS Mandate continues to make news, so I thought it would be worthwhile to give a quick, plain-language overview of where things stand, and what’s at stake.

    What is the “HHS Mandate”?

    The “HHS mandate” comes from a provision in the “Affordable Care Act” (the “ACA”, which is typically being called “Obamacare”) that requires all employers who offer health insurance to include coverage for “preventive services”.   The term “preventive services” has been defined by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to include contraceptive drugs and devices (including “emergency contraception”, which causes early abortions) and sterilization operations.

    The mandate went into effect as of January 1.  As of that day, religious non-profits were faced with a terrible dilemma — sacrifice their religious beliefs and obey, or face the consequences of non-compliance.

    What’s at stake if organizations don’t comply?

    If an employer’s health insurance plan does not provide the coverage required by the HHS Mandate, they are subject to a fine of $100 per day per employee.  An employer with 100 employees would be fined $10,000 every day, or $3.6 million per year.

    There are thousands of religious non-profits in this situation.   Take one small case — the Little Sisters of the Poor (whose case is much in the news these days), who employ hundreds of people at their thirty nursing homes.  They could face fines of over $50 million per year for non-compliance.  Obviously, that would put them and their nursing homes out of business.

    When you look at the even bigger picture, the numbers become staggering.  Catholic Charities reports that their affiliated agencies have over 70,000 employees nationwide.  If all of those agencies were non-compliant, they would risk a total of over $2.5 billion in fines every year.

    Isn’t there an exemption for religious employers?

    There are many exemptions from the entire ACA.  For example, members of religions that oppose insurance benefit programs (e.g., the Amish) do not have to comply with any part of the law.  Over the past few months, the Administration has granted new exemptions, waivers, and delays, due to the mess associated with the new health exchange websites, and all the other chaos involved in implementing such a complicated new law.  So there are lots of people who don’t have to comply with all or part of the ACA.

    As for the HHS Mandate itself, the Administration did give a very narrow exemption from the HHS Mandate for churches.  There is an “accommodation” for some religious non-profit organizations (e.g., Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals).  There is no exemption for for-profit companies.

    But there’s an important catch involved in the “accommodation” for religious non-profits.  They can only qualify if  they file a form that directs their insurance company  to provide coverage for contraception and sterilization.  This is not “just a form”.  Instead, it’s a “permission slip” — it is the key document that triggers insurance coverage for the offensive services.

    So, regardless of the Administration’s claim that they have “accommodated” religious non-profits, the reality is that faith-based organizations have to become directly involved in immoral behavior — or risk the ruinous fines outlined above.

    What’s going on in court?

    There are dozens of lawsuits across the country challenging the HHS Mandate, on the basis of religious liberty.  The cases rely on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and a federal law called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”.  These cases are all working their way through the federal courts.

    A number of for-profit businesses have brought lawsuits against the HHS Mandate on the basis of their religious beliefs.  The Supreme Court has agreed to decide cases brought by two businesses (Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood).  There are a number of thorny legal issues involved in these cases, including whether corporations have religious liberty rights at all.  The issues will be hotly contested, and many people will file briefs on the case, including the US Bishops, who will support the companies’ position.  The Court will decide the cases by June.

    Many other cases have been brought by religious organizations, including the Archdiocese.   Twenty of these cases have been decided so far, and nineteen have resulted in victories — the courts have held that the “permission slip” form is a violation of their religious liberties.   The Government is appealing their losses, and the Supreme Court will have the final word.   But no decision is expected for at least a year.

    One case that has been in the news was brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor.  They lost in the lower court, but Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor has issued a “stay” — an order that puts the lower court’s decision on hold, so that the Sisters could appeal.  The government has opposed the “stay”, and a decision by the full Supreme Court will determine whether the Sisters will face tens of millions of dollars in fines while they appeal.  But no matter what the Court rules on the “stay”, the Sisters will still have to go back and fight out their case in the lower courts on the merits.

    So what can we do?

    Of course, the most important thing is to pray for the conversion of heart of the President and his Administration, and for the success of the lawsuits against the mandate.  There are lots of prayer resources at the U.S. Bishops’ website.

    We can also take action.  Please contact your Congressional representatives and urge them to support authentic conscience protection, and a full repeal of the mandate.  The quickest way to do that is through the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment’s Action Center.

    The Administration’s Ideological Obsession

    Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

    How can you diagnose when somebody is suffering from ideological obsession?

    Consider the case of the Affordable Care Act.  This law was supposed to provide for universal health insurance for all Americans.  Yet the law is filled with exemptions, and the Administration has granted even more exceptions and exemptions as the implementation date for the law approached on New Year’s Day.

    Here are just a few of the exemptions that were incorporated in the law itself:  people who can’t afford coverage, even with a subsidy; people with income levels too low to require filing a federal tax return; members of certain Indian tribes; people who can claim a hardship; people who will have a short gap in their coverage;  members of certain religious groups that conscientiously oppose insurance benefit programs (e.g., the Amish); members of a “health care sharing ministry”; people in prison; and people who are not lawfully in the United States.

    In the last few months, with all the mess associated with the new health exchange websites, and all the other chaos associated with the law, the Administration has granted new exemptions:  people whose plans were cancelled can get a plan that is not compliant with the ACA; people who weren’t able to comply because of difficulties in signing up for a new plan won’t be penalized; and large businesses with over 50 employees will not be fined for failing to provide any health insurance.

    Now, many of these exemptions make perfect sense, and reflect a healthy degree of flexibility in the implementation of a very complex law.

    So, what does this have to do with ideology?  Well, despite all those other exemptions, waivers and extensions, one group has not been able to obtain an exemption, despite repeatedly asking for it, petitioning for it, and finally suing for it — religious organizations that have a moral objection to facilitating contraception, sterilization, and abortion, as would be required under the so-called HHS Mandate.

    For these groups, there is no flexibility at all.  There is instead an adamant insistence that they will have to cooperate, regardless of their deeply-held religious beliefs.  The Amish get out of the law entirely, but when it comes to Catholic dioceses, schools and charities agencies, the government offers nothing except artificial and unsatisfactory “accommodations”.

    Consider the absurdity of the government’s position.  As pointed out by Archbishop Kurtz, the president of the U.S. Bishops, under the Administration’s current policies, large businesses will be able to completely eliminate any health insurance for their employees, with no fine at all, but religious organizations that refuse to cooperate with moral evil will be subject to crippling fines of $100 per day per employee.  The government won’t even grant temporary respite while legal challenges are working their way through the courts.  They can’t even bring themselves to give a break to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who spend their entire lives caring for needy elderly people.

    Why is this?  It’s not that hard to understand.  The current Administration is entirely beholden to an ideology of sexual liberationism that considers contraception, sterilization and abortion to be “sacred ground”.  They consider this ideology to be so central to life that they will brook no opposition, and will do whatever it takes to bring to heel anyone who opposes them.

    That is an ideological obsession.  It is dangerous to the souls of those who suffer from it, and it is dangerous to any society in which they wield power.

    An Important Victory for Religious Freedom

    Monday, December 16th, 2013

    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.