Posts Tagged ‘Religious Liberty’

What Do You See In This Picture?

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

Last year, my Public Policy Office started a Facebook page, in hopes of spreading the Church’s position on important public issues and to encourage people to be better informed and more active citizens. Over the last nine months, our following has grown substantially — we are closing in on 3,200 “Likes” and our postings regularly reach well over 10,000 people each week. If you’re reading this and you’re not one of them, please visit our Facebook page and “like” us.

The reason for this growth has been a series of ads that consists of a slide show of photos, along with a message about an important issue, like abortion, assisted suicide, human trafficking, and so on. We choose photos because we think they’ll attract people to the ad and we also hope that they will make an important point that’s relevant to the issue.

We have repeatedly run ads on religious liberty. This is one of the most important issues facing the Church and all people of faith. Anyone who has read this blog, followed the US bishops’ statements, listened to the Cardinal, or just read the paper over the past few years should understand how serious the threat is.

Which brings me to our latest ad. The text of the ad says this:

Around the world, people are persecuted for their faith; even an ally, France, has banned personal expressions of faith from public spaces. The U.S. still upholds the value of religious freedom, though it’s under threat – especially conscience protections. Join us for live and social media discussions of religious liberty.

Here’s the first picture of the slide show:

What do you see in this picture?

The comments to our ad showed me that there were some people who didn’t see what I saw. I was astonished at the number of negative comments about Muslim people and Islam, and by  uninformed accusations that the Church does not defend our own religious liberty. I deleted many of the comments because they either used foul language or were so insulting that they had no place on a religious organization’s page. Just as an example of the ones I can repeat, there were blanket accusations that Muslims “hate us”, Islam was called a “demonic religion”, and we were laughably accused of being “politically correct”.

Is that what you see in this picture?

I see a young woman who, as an outward expression of her Muslim faith, has decided to wear the headscarf known as a hijab. She looks to me like a college student that I might see anywhere in America, or a young lady working in an office or store I might visit. I see someone who is proud of her faith, and unafraid to show it. I see someone who is admirable for that.

I also see Malala Yousafzai. She’s the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, a young Muslim woman who was shot by Taliban fanatics because of her advocacy for the education of women. Fortunately, she survived and in all her appearances to speak up for women’s rights, she always wears a hijab as a statement of her faith. She is a tremendous witness to religious liberty and has received dozens of awards and honors, including the annual Mother Teresa Award.

I also see Samantha Elauf. She was the young woman who applied for a job at Abercrombie and Fitch but was denied employment solely because she wore the hijab as an expression of her faith. Her case went up to the Supreme Court in 2015 and thankfully, a unanimous Court upheld her right to wear religious clothing in public without being discriminated against. She is another witness to religious liberty.

I also see Suha Elqutt. She is a Muslim woman who wears a hijab according to her faith. She was going to court recently in Oklahoma to finalize her divorce from an abusive husband. But when she rang the metal detector, the court security officials refused her request to remove her headscarf in private and only in the presence of female officers. Instead they humiliated her by forcing her to uncover her head while crouching between cars in the parking lot where any man could have seen her at any time. Her religious liberty was violated and we all should stand up and defend her.

I also see people of faith in France and elsewhere in Europe. Those nations have been passing laws for over a decade that restrict the ability of people of faith — not just Muslims but anyone — to wear religious garb. Just last year the European Court of Justice (sic) ruled that employers can ban employees from wearing any outward signs of their faith. The specific case involved the hijab, but it would apply equally to a Jewish kippah, the veil of a religious sister or even just a crucifix. That is a frightening state of affairs.

Don’t get me wrong here — I’m not saying that all religions have equal value. I believe our Christian faith is the one true faith and that nobody is saved except by the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). While I respect Muslims as fellow worshipers of the One True God, I believe they have a fundamentally flawed understanding of the nature of God and are laboring under a false revelation. I also know very well that there are some Muslims who are violent and who persecute Christians and Westerners. And I absolutely believe that anyone who breaks the law or commits acts of violence in the name of any religion must be held accountable.

But that’s not what I see in this picture.

The trend in Europe shows why we have to defend the religious liberty of everyone. If it’s denied to anyone, it’s a threat to everyone, and the defense of religious freedom for everyone is in the finest tradition of our American history. It has never been said better than by George Washington, in his famous letter to the Jewish people of Rhode Island:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I think that’s what everyone should see in this picture.

Big Brother in Albany

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

The public policy environment of New York State is almost invariably depressing. When you combine a corrupt dysfunctional State Legislature with an arrogant unaccountable Governor who rules as if endowed with the royal prerogative, there’s little reason for pride in the way the Empire State is led. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how things could get any worse.

And then, earlier this week, the Governor veered frighteningly into the territory of the suppression of free thought and speech, and intolerance for religious freedom.

His press release trumpeted that the Governor had signed an Executive Order “banning all state agencies and authorities from doing business with companies that promote or tolerate discrimination” against “LGBTQ” people. At first glance, who could object to that? Discrimination is a bad thing, isn’t it? But read that statement again carefully. It doesn’t say “companies that discriminate”. It is aimed at companies that “promote or tolerate” discrimination. What in the world does that mean?

The answer can be found by reading further in the press release and the Executive Order. There it is made clear that the target of this new action is the very existence of religious agencies, and the intent is to suppress any deviation from the new orthodoxy of gender and sexual ideology. There we will find these nuggets (the original language is in italics and my comments are in regular text):

“Additionally, in October 2017, the federal government rescinded a contraceptive coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act.” 

This is a reference to proposed new regulations that would finally end the interminable controversy over the HHS Mandate, which forced religious organizations to provide health insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients. This was the mandate that caused the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic institutions to fight for their rights all the way up to the Supreme Court.

This gives the game away right at the start. Those proposed regulations had nothing to do with discrimination laws or “LGBT” rights. They dealt solely with religious liberty and the HHS Mandate. By citing this completely irrelevant federal proposal, the press release inadvertently made clear that the Governor’s new order is rooted in animosity towards religious freedom.

“This action has permitted employers and organizations to claim broad exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, which has increased the vulnerability of LGBTQ rights.” 

This statement is absolutely false, misleading and incomprehensible. The Administration’s action on the HHS Mandate had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anti-discrimination laws, and it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with “LGBTQ” rights. It granted no exemptions of any kind whatsoever from non-discrimination laws, which the Executive Branch is not able to do anyway without an act of Congress. The idea that “LGBTQ rights” might be “vulnerable” (whatever that means) because of a decision relating to health insurance coverage of contraceptives is something that only an ideologue could believe.

This also gives the game away. This claim about exemptions from non-discrimination laws is the bogeyman raised by gay rights advocates to create a (non-existent but sympathetic) conflict between their interests and religious liberty. By parroting the advocates’ talking points, the Governor shows that the real intent of his Executive Order is to stigmatize religious freedom and threaten to penalize people for unacceptable thinking.

“With this executive order, New York reaffirms our commitment to protecting the rights of everyone.”

This is classic Orwellian doublethink — simultaneously believing in two utterly contradictory things. You cannot at the same time quash religious liberty and freedom of thought and still claim to be protecting the rights of everyone. This order is premised on the assumption that freedom is a zero-sum game with winners and losers — and the Governor has chosen which side he wants to win.

“Finally, the Governor announced that any school that refuses to protect transgender students will not receive state funding.”

Here is the unequivocal and direct attack on religious liberty. Note that the Governor’s order is aimed at “any school”, not just public schools. Catholic, Christian and Orthodox Jewish schools receive state funding for things like textbooks and computers as a matter of basic fairness to the parents of their students. They already protect all students from any kind of harassment or bullying or violence. But they do not and cannot recognize the idea of transgenderism, which is based on a false anthropology contrary to their religious beliefs. These faith communities continue to commit what contemporary sexual ideology considers to be an unforgivable heresy — namely, that God created every human person as male and female and that one’s “gender identity” must accept and conform to to the biological reality of male and female nature.

The amorphous language being used here — the vague undefined terms “protect”, “tolerate” and “promote” — shows that broad discretion is going to be given to unaccountable bureaucrats to police speech and thought as well as behavior. Who will decide what is sufficient to constitute “protection” and what standard will they use? Will it be enough to protect all students equally? Or will the state require Catholic, Christian and Jewish schools to violate their religious beliefs and treat some students in special ways that acknowledge the false notion of fluid gender identity? Does anyone trust this state government led by this Governor to act in a way that respects religious freedom as well as the rights to free speech, thought and association? Or are we witnessing the foundation of a Thought Police?

“Affected State Entities are hereby directed to amend their procurement procedures to prevent Affected State Entities from entering into contracts with entities that have institutional policies or practices that fail to address the harassment and discrimination of individuals on the basis of their gender identity, transgender status, gender dysphoria or any of the other protected classes enumerated above.”

This is the language of the Executive Order itself, and it carries much more weight than a press release. This is the directive that will be used by state agencies to come up with binding rules. If this language just spoke of banning companies that have been found guilty of actual acts of discrimination, then it would be one thing. Or if it dealt with government agencies subject to the Governor’s direct authority, that would make some sense.

But this Order is aimed at banning private companies “that have institutional policies or practices that fail to address” harassment and discrimination. This doesn’t seem to require proof of actual wrong-doing — that acts of discrimination have occurred or that the company failed to correct them. So how will we know if a policy “fails to address” discrimination? Who will decide that, and what standard will they use? Since our schools and institutions do not recognize the validity of transgenderism, are we per se guilty of this thoughtcrime because of our religious beliefs? Again, can we trust this state government led by this Governor to act in a way that respects religious freedom as well as the rights to free speech, thought and association?

To really capture the import of the Governor’s new policy, just consider his own words: “I can tell you that any school that refuses to protect transgender students will not receive a penny of state money and then they are out of business.” No subtlety to that threat. The only schools he could be talking about are religious ones, and everyone knows that means Catholic, Christian and Orthodox Jewish schools. The message is clear — conform or be destroyed.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in a case named Trinity Lutheran Church v. Missouri. It involved a religious school that was denied a government contract that was generally available to anyone else. The Court said,

The State has pursued its preferred policy to the point of expressly denying a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character. Under our precedents, that goes too far. The Department’s policy violates the Free Exercise Clause.

The Supreme Court saw clearly that our Constitution recognizes the fundamental human right to think and believe freely, and that government cannot penalize persons or organizations solely because of their religious beliefs. The Court rejected the fundamentally totalitarian idea that all private entities must be forced into harmony with the government’s ideology.

The Supreme Court sees what Big Brother in Albany does not. The future of freedom in our state is not looking good.

What’s at Stake in the Cake Case

Monday, December 4th, 2017

A very important religious liberty and free speech case will be argued before the United States Supreme Court tomorrow. It involves a wedding cake artist, Jack Phillips, who does business in Colorado under the name Masterpiece Cakes. This decision will go a long way to determining how much freedom we will have to dissent from the current cultural orthodoxy — and not just on issues of “gay rights”.

A few years ago, before same-sex “marriage” was legalized in Colorado, Mr. Phillips was approached by two men who were planning a “wedding” in another state, and wanted to have a reception in Colorado. They asked him to bake and decorate a custom wedding cake for them. Mr. Phillips declined, citing his Christian faith and his beliefs about the true nature of marriage, and said that he could not use his artistic talent to promote an event that was contrary to his faith. The State of Colorado, acting through its Civil Rights Commission, took a dim view of Mr. Phillips’ religious objection and ruled that the state’s “public accommodation” law prohibited him from discriminating against a customer on the basis of sexual orientation.

The case has now been appealed through the courts and has now reached the Supreme Court. Mr. Phillips has two main arguments. First, he is arguing that being forced to decorate the wedding cake violates his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion by requiring him to participate in an event that is contrary to his faith (the “wedding” reception). His second argument is based on the premise that his artistic cake decorations are a form of speech, so he should not be coerced into saying something that he does not wish to say (that this relationship is in fact a “marriage”).  Colorado is countering by denying that cake decorating is a form of speech or expressive conduct, and by contending that the state’s interest in eliminating discrimination outweighs Mr. Phillips’ right to free exercise of religion.

Our mainstream culture has adopted the notion that gay rights should trump all other legal interests. It holds that “error has no rights” when it comes to the newly-minted notion of same-sex “marriage”, and any dissident is a bigot with no rights bound to be respected by enlightened folk. The advocates for these views have been very busy whipping up fear and loathing and  predicting all sorts of deplorable consequences if Mr. Phillips wins. They have also been misrepresenting what the law actually is, and substituting their “wishful thinking” theory of what they want the law to be.

The Supreme Court’s prior rulings on the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment make it clear that the government cannot easily impose laws upon people when they pose a serious conflict with the person’s religious beliefs or when they suppress their speech.  In other words, when a person claims a religious exemption or a free speech protection they are not breaking the law — they are merely asserting their basic human and constitutional rights.  If the government or a private party fails to recognize those rights, they are the ones who are breaking the law, not the religious believer.

Examples abound in both speech and religion cases, such as the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the right of Jehovah Witnesses to refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In that case, the Court made a famous statement of principle: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” In another case involving the right to say things that people found offensive, the Court said, “the mere presumed presence of unwitting listeners or viewers does not serve automatically to justify curtailing all speech capable of giving offense”.

Cases happen all the time that involve conflicts between free speech and religious freedom rights against other legal interests of the government or private parties. Every state and the federal government has a law that requires employers to give reasonable accommodations to employees if their work conditions violate their religious beliefs. The recent Supreme Court decisions in the challenges to the HHS Mandate (principally the Hobby Lobby case in 2014) affirmed the idea that burdens on a person’s religious belief can warrant an exemption from the law. In recent years the Supreme Court has also upheld a church’s ability to hire and fire its ministers, the right of a prisoner to grow a beard required by his faith, and the right of a prospective employee to wear a head covering mandated by her faith. In the lower courts, there have been hundreds of lawsuits where employers are required to recognize religious holidays or clothing, cities are banned from restricting street-corner evangelists, schools are prevented from closing religious clubs or newspapers, etc. There have been numerous free speech cases that carefully protected people’s right to express themselves without government censorship.

The current law has certain characteristics that we need to understand if we are to appreciate the Cake Case and to separate the wheat from the chaff in the opinions of pundits and commentators:

  • The law requires judges to actually judge, and make fact-based case-by-case evaluations.There’s no blanket rule favoring anyone. So the claim by advocates that a ruling for Mr. Phillips will create a universal “get out of the law free card” for religious believers shows a complete lack of faith in our court system to do its job. It’s also not supported by any evidence that religious liberty or free speech claims win every case — in fact, the studies show quite the contrary.
  • It rejects the “tough luck” approach under which the religious person automatically always loses. Enemies of religion may wish it were otherwise, but the law has long recognized that there actually is some legitimacy to religious beliefs and that they occasionally have to be protected. In fact, studies show that in recent years that religious liberty plaintiffs win about half of the cases that are brought claiming a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and three-quarters of free speech cases. Legislatures also routinely grant religious exemptions. The sky has not yet fallen.
  • It protects against slippery slopes. Back to our original principle — our current law relies on judges being judges and making sensible distinctions between cases and to apply the rules sensibly. There has been no outpouring of religious liberty cases or massive instances of nullification of generally applicable laws. The study noted above found that there has been no significant change in the way the law is applied since the Hobby Lobby case in 2014, which upheld the religious freedom of a family business to refuse to comply with the HHS Mandate.
  • It does not require you give up your religious freedom by engaging in business. This has been settled law for decades. The Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby implicitly recognized it just a couple of years ago. In an earlier case, the court said: “It is well settled that a speaker’s rights are not lost merely because compensation is received; a speaker is no less a speaker because he or she is paid to speak.” Being in business doesn’t mean that Mr. Phillips suddenly became a second-class citizen.
  • It recognizes and protects against objections based on insincere religious beliefs. Such claims will inevitably happen. But again, the law trusts that judges will actually judge and discern which claims are legitimate and which are frivolous. Judges have been doing this for many years, and there’s no reason to believe that they will suddenly lose that ability if Mr. Phillips prevails.
  • It will not silence people’s speech just because somebody else is offended or it hurts their dignity. This is also well-established law. Our right to free speech does not stop when others’ sensibilities come into play. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right to “offensive speech”, including the right of Nazis to march in a Jewish neighborhood, the KKK to burn a cross, and a fringe anti-gay group to protest at soldiers’ funerals. The risk of hurt feelings is a price of freedom. Plus, why does the dignity of the gay couple have more legal weight than Mr. Phillips’ dignity and integrity?

Our nation was built on the notion of the inherent rights of individuals to live free from undue government control. That freedom applies to all sorts of people, including and especially those whose opinions are not favored by the majority and powerful. Mr. Phillips is defending his ability to make his cakes and decorate them as he pleases. Even those who disagree with him should defend that right.

A Major Victory for Religious Freedom

Friday, October 6th, 2017

After years of regulatory and courtroom battling, the Government has finally recognized that it was a violation of religious liberty to impose what we have long called the “HHS Mandate” on those with religious objections to contraception, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization. That mandate was cooked out of thin air by the previous Administration under the purported authority of the Affordable Care Act. The current Administration has now issued new rules that give relief to religious and other organizations, as well as individuals.

This is a major victory, and we should express our gratitude to the President and his Administration, particularly those in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The sweep of the new rules is very broad. First, the admission that the original (and the many revised) rules violated the religious freedom of institutions and individuals (direct quotations from the new proposed rules are in italics):

  • “We have concluded that requiring certain objecting entities or individuals to choose between the Mandate, the accommodation, or penalties for noncompliance imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise under RFRA.” This corrects the error of the previous Administration, which stubbornly insisted that the Mandate did not impose a burden on religious belief.
  • “Our reconsideration of these issues has also led us to conclude… that the Mandate imposes a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of individual employees who oppose contraceptive coverage and would be able to obtain a plan that omits contraception…” Under the original Mandate, individuals with religious objections had no hope of any relief.
  • “the Departments have concluded that the application of the Mandate to entities with sincerely held religious objections to it does not serve a compelling governmental interest.”This is a huge concession, and reverses the adamant — and hardly credible — insistence by the previous Administration that riding roughshod over the religious objections served a vital public interest.
  • “In the Departments’ view, a broader exemption is a more direct, effective means of satisfying all bona fide religious objectors.” Note the new emphasis here of actually showing respect for religious objectors, instead of brushing them aside, which was the attitude of the previous Administration.

Now, the specifics, which also show a broad desire to protect religious liberty:

  • “With respect to employers that sponsor group health plans, the new language… provides exemptions for employers that object to coverage of all or a subset of contraceptives or sterilization and related patient education and counseling based on sincerely held religious beliefs.” This is the most significant provision, because it allows all employers with religious organizations to opt out of the offensive coverage without going through any bureaucratic process.
  • “Consistent with the restated exemption, exempt entities will not be required to comply with a self-certification process.” This removes one of the most objectionable provisions of the previous Mandate, which essentially required religious organizations to give a permission slip for offensive services to be provided — putting them in direct cooperation with evil.
  • “the Departments do not limit the Guidelines exemption with reference to nonprofit status… the rules extend the exemption to the plans of closely held for-profit entities. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby… the rules extend the exemption to the plans of for-profit entities that are not closely held.” This is a huge expansion of the exemption, because it will not just be limited to organizations that are non-profit or to those for-profit entities that satisfy standards that vary from state to state to determine if they are “closely held”.
  • “These interim final rules extend the exemption… to health insurance issuers offering group or individual health insurance coverage that sincerely hold their own religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services.” This would also allow insurance companies with religious values to operate, providing a potential safe harbor from these and other morally offensive measures.
  • “This individual exemption allows plan sponsors and issuers that do not specifically object to contraceptive coverage to offer religiously acceptable coverage to their participants or subscribers who do object, while offering coverage that includes contraception to participants or subscribers who do not object.” Another major victory, this would permit — but not require — insurers to offer objecting individuals to opt out of the offensive coverage.

This is the result of steadfast opposition and litigation by many organizations and individuals who refused to surrender their religious principles  to over-reaching, ideologically-driven government regulation. Particuarly worthy of mention are the great defenders of religious freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket.

We can legitimately celebrate this victory, and thank God that our government has shown a new-found respect for our first and most precious freedom.

A Religious Liberty Failure

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

It is often difficult to know what to make of this very strange Administration. Every day seems to bring a new self-generated controversy and it is often difficult to discern what is going on and why.

Sometimes, though, it is very clear what has happened — or more accurately, what has not happened. The case in point is the alleged religious liberty executive order issued last week to great fanfare. It was a splendid photo op, with the President surrounded by Catholic prelates, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and other religious leaders. The President spoke wonderful words about how committed our government is to defending religious liberty. There were smiles all around and much applause.

The problem is that the executive order is virtually useless, it accomplishes nothing, it misses an opportunity to implement important reforms, and it delivers nothing more than vague promises of possible future actions at undefined times.

The order contains six paragraphs. The first contains hortatory language about the importance of religious liberty, which is virtually indistinguishable from proclamations issued by the prior Administration. The last two paragraphs deal with legal procedure that has no particular importance. The middle three paragraphs is where the substance is supposed to be, but isn’t.

Paragraph 2 purports to grant legal protection to the free speech of religious non-profits and churchs that are incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It directs the Treasury Department not to enforce a legal provision known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits those organizations from engaging in partisan political activity such as open endorsement of candidates. Opinions differ about the Johnson Amendment. I happen to think it’s a good idea but many others disagree. The problem is, though, that the government has virtually never enforced that provision and the President can’t do anything to change the law itself — it can only be repealed by an act of Congress. Future administrations could easily begin enforcing the rule at any time — which would be particularly dangerous for any organization that foolishly relies on this executive order and begins engaging in partisan politics.

So this part of the executive order is actually completely devoid of any real content. It’s merely a promise not to do something that isn’t being done, without preventing it from being done in the future. Hold your applause.

Paragraph 3 is a particularly frustrating diappointment to those of us who have been battling over religious liberty the past few years, especially over the HHS contraception and abortion mandate. That is the cause of voluminous litigation that culminated in a directive from the Supreme Court that the government find some way to accommodate the religious liberty concerns of religious non-profits who object to the mandate. This executive order directs the relevant agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections”.

“Consider”? That’s all? Remember, you can’t overturn statutes or regulations with a mere executive order, so the HHS mandate and its offensive non-exemption continues to be the law of the land. But the President, with the stroke of a pen or even with a mere oral order, could easily have directed the Justice Department to immediately settle all the litigation by granting the religious non-profits the same full exemption that is enjoyed by churches, and further directing the relevant agencies to develop regulations that would formalize that settlement into law. That would have resolved the HHS mandate controversy completely and it would have established a strong precedent for further conscience protection laws and regulations.

This is a tragic missed opportunity, and it directly calls into question the Administration’s competence and/or its sincerity about protecting religious freedom. It is a complete and absolute failure to follow through on explicit campaign promises — somehave even called it a betrayal.

Paragraph 4 is hardly worth mentioning. It directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections”. This won’t come any time soon, since virtually no sub-cabinet Justice Department officials have been confirmed by the Senate and there isn’t even a nominee for the head of the crucial Civil Rights Division. And in any event, “guidance” does not have the same force of law as regulations or statutes, it does not have to be accepted by the courts and it can be overturned at any time by this or any future Administration. So this is another post-dated check for something that may be delivered someday by someone. Yawn.

This much bally-hooed executive order is a major failure. It provides no actual protection for religious freedom. It does nothing to change the law. It does nothing to reverse the hostility of the prior Administration towards those with traditional religious beliefs. It does nothing to protect religious contractors from discrimination by government agencies that disapprove of their beliefs. It is such a non-starter that even the ACLU has decided that it’s not worth challenging in court.

Many people, particularly religious conservatives, supported the President because they rightly feared the consequences for religious liberty if Hillary Clinton had been elected. But the President’s executive order uttely fails to deliver on expectations for imporoved protection of religious liberty. All we can hope is that the Administration will eventually get its act together, appoint good people to crucial executive positions, and implement concrete reforms to statutes and regulations that will give genuine and lasting protection to people and organizations of faith. Meanwhile, despite all the fanfare in the Rose Garden, the very real threats to religious freedom remain.

Our Government is the Enemy of Religious Freedom

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Throughout American history, people have depended on our government to protect our basic liberties — our “unalienable rights”. Our Declaration of Independence was based on the premise that the purpose of government was to secure these rights, and that any government that sought to extinguish them was unjust and should be replaced. Our Constitution likewise contains numerous provisions that are specifically designed to protect individual liberties — especially the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In recent years, it has become more and more clear that the current Administration harbors a settled hostility to religious liberty and freedom of speech, and a deep commitment to coercing compliance with their ideology of sexual liberation and gender theory. The history of the HHS contraception mandate shows the relentless commitment of the Administration to coerce all employers, including religious organizations, to offer insurance coverage for procedures and medications that are offensive to their religious beliefs, like abortifacient drugs and devices.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court sent a very clear message to the Administration that they wanted them to come to some kind of compromise over the HHS contraception mandate. But rather than heeding that suggestion, the Administration has instead intensified its assault on religious liberty.

In May, the Department of Health and Human Services issued new regulations that are astonishing in their breadth and daring. The regulations rely on an interpretation of the term “sex” in current anti-discrimination laws, and stretch that clear term to encompass “gender identity” — which the regulation defines as a person’s “internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither, or a combination of male and female”, which would even include people with “non-binary gender identities”. A definition that includes so much is no definition at all — it is hopelessly broad and vague, and ultimately incoherent. But that is gender ideology at its heart.

The regs go on to require every doctor, hospital and other health care entity that receives federal funds (e.g., Medicare) — in effect, virtually every single health provider in the US —  to cover all procedures and interventions related to a person’s “gender transition”. Just to be clear, that means medical procedures like massive doses of hormones and the removal or mutilation of health body parts (i.e., hysterectomies, castration, penectomies, mastectomies, plastic surgery to create fake sex organs, etc.) — all so that a man can pretend he is a woman, and vice versa. This coercive mandate will override the medical judgment of a doctor that such acts are not medically necessary or appropriate, and they permit no exceptions based on religious or moral values.

It gets even worse. The regs also interpret the notion of “sex discrimination” to mean that a health provider cannot refuse to perform abortions, and must cover abortions and all those “gender transitioning” procedures in their health insurance plans.

All of this was done through the administrative law process, which is an arcane and undemocratic way to make law. Instead of having a bill passed by both Houses of Congress, all this requires is a regulatory agency plublishing proposed rules, allowing people to comment for a short time, and then promulgating whatever rules they wish. No public hearings are needed, so the entire process is hidden deep in the pages of a massive publication called the “Federal Register”, which no normal person can read and understand (even lawyers, who are far from normal, have a hard time). It is extremely difficult to overturn regulations, because our courts have abandoned their duty of constitutional oversight and give extreme deference to the agencies putting forth the regs.

Our government has been increasingly using this undemocratic process to impose their ideology on the nation. In fact, they go even further by issuing “guidances”, which are purportedly not binding but which in fact are just as coercive as regulations and statutes.

A lawsuit has been filed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing a number of states, religious health institutions, and health professionals. If the government follows its previous practice, they will fight tooth and nail against any compromises, and will never concede any ground. No religious objection is ever enough for them, and no demand by gender ideologues is too much. That is the regime under which we live.

In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders stated clearly that when a government no longer secures basic rights, and instead seeks to usurp or repress them, it can only be described as a tyranny. Our government may not be comparable to the wicked despotisms around the world, but it has clearly crossed a line with its relentless attacks religious freedom.

Supreme Court to Religious Liberty — Drop Dead

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

In the last few decades, legal scholars and those interested in religious liberty have questioned whether the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution is on its way to extinction. The question stems from the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in the case of Employment Division v. Smith, in which it held that a neutral law of general applicability does not violate the Free Exercise Clause, even if it imposes a burden on a person’s religious beliefs or practices.

At this point, the Supreme Court has give a pretty clear answer to this question. For all intents and purposes, the Free Exercise Clause is a dead letter, with as much life to it as the Third Amendment’s ban on the quartering of troops in private houses.

Although the Smith rule appears to leave open the possibility of challenging laws, in reality it has rendered the Free Exercise Clause virtually useless in defending religious liberty. In fact, in the recent cases that have reached the Supreme Court on religious freedom during Chief Justice Roberts’ tenure (since 2005), virtually all have completely ignored the  Free Exercise Clause. Instead, the very few religion cases that have been taken by the Court were decided on other grounds, such as the Free Speech Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or Title VII. The lone possible exception was an ambiguous decision regarding the ability of churches to have discretion over religious employment decisions; it isn’t clear whether it rested on the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause. In any event, it’s as if the Court doesn’t want to hear about the Free Exercise Clause.

If that weren’t clear already, the Court made it perfectly plain this term. A very significant religious freedom case was presented to the Court, involving a serious infringement upon religious freedom. But the Court didn’t think the case was even worth considering.

The case involved a small family-owned pharmacy in the State of Washington. The owners of the pharmacy, the Stormans family, are Christians, and they have religious objections to dispensing so-called “emergency contraception”, because it can cause an early abortion. Other nearby pharmacies are willing to dispense those drugs, so they are easily available to anyone who wants them.

That wasn’t good enough for the pro-abortion zealots in the Washington government. They adopted regulations that their Human Rights Commission interpreted to specifically rule out moral and religious objections to the dispensing of drugs, even though they permitted (either explicitly or by practice) a host of non-religious reasons that a pharmacy can decline to dispense a particular drug. This was the result of a concerted campaign by abortion advocates to rule out any conscience-based objections to “emergency contraception”. In fact, the Governor of Washington invited Planned Parenthood to collaborate in the drafting of the regulations. The Governor even threatened the members of the Human Rights Commission being fired, and with violations of anti-discrimination laws if they allowed conscience objections. Once the rules were adopted, Planned Parenthood targeted this pharmacy for complaints.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer case of the government using its power to punish people of faith for exercising their religious beliefs in the way they conduct their business. There is no doubt that the government of Washington was trying to enforce a pro-abortion orthodoxy, and was willing to put people out of business if they dared to dissent.

The Stormans family challenged these regulations, and were initially victorious. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — a notoriously liberal bench — overturned the lower-court decision. The Stormans then appealed to the Supreme Court. They were represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the great defenders of religous liberty and human life. Thirty-three state pharmacy associations urged the Court to take the case. Many others — including the US Bishops Conference and forty-three members of Congress — filed briefs in support of the Stormans’ petition.

Even under the restrictive Smith rule, this should have been an easy case. There was clearly a substantial burden on religious beliefs — being forced to cooperate directly in a possible abortion. The law was far from neutral — it specifically targeted only those who had moral or religious objections, and nobody else. And it absolutely wasn’t generally applicable — all sorts of secular exceptions were permitted, and only moral or religious ones prohibited.

But on the very last day of the Court’s term, it refused to hear the Stormans’ case. Five Justices — Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagen and Sotomayor — didn’t think that the Stormans deserved their day in Court. (I have to add that Justice Sotomayor joining that group is a particular disgrace — she is a graduate of Cardinal Spellman High School, my alma mater, and she obviously didn’t learn the same things that I was taught about the importance of our Catholic faith.)

The three remaining Justices — Roberts, Alito, and Thomas — dissented from the denial of the appeal, and Justice Alito wrote a blistering opinion. His opening paragraphs are worth quoting at length:

This case is an ominous sign.

At issue are Washington State regulations that are likely to make a pharmacist unemployable if he or she objects on religious grounds to dispensing certain prescription medications. There are strong reasons to doubt whether the regulations were adopted for — or that they actually serve — any legitimate purpose. And there is much evidence that the impetus for the adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the State. Yet the Ninth Circuit held that the regulations do not violate the First Amendment, and this Court does not deem the case worthy of our time. If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.

By refusing to hear this case, the Supreme Court said to the Stormans and to the Free Exercise Clause that they can just drop dead. That is bad news for religious liberty, for the equal administration of the law, and for the health of our society. An ominous sign, indeed.

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.

The Danger is Clear and Present

Saturday, May 14th, 2016

There are many people who continue to scoff at our warnings about the gravity of the threats to religious liberty, and our fears of outright persecution by our government. They accuse us of scaremongering, and insist that “that will never happen”.

The skeptics need to come to New York. The threat is real, and it is here, right now — a government mandate that private health insurance plans cover elective abortions. And it is happening with all the classic characteristics of New York government — secretive, devious, duplicitous, unaccountable, and arrogant.

To understand this, you have to have a small bit of background. The New York State Department of Financial Services regulates the insurance business. They have to approve every health insurance policy by the beginning of the new year, to make sure that it complies with all the various legal requirements in New York law. To make this easier, DFS issues what it calls “model language” for health plans. Although one would think that “model language” is merely a suggestion, in reality it is required, because no health plan would be approved without it. So every health insurance company just falls in line, and the person obtaining the insurance really has no choice. So the “model language” is actually a legal mandate, dressed up in other clothing to hide the truth.

Here’s where the classic New York underhandedness comes in. Last year, DFS put out draft “model language” for small employer policies that included coverage for so-called “therapeutic abortions” — which really means abortion on demand, for any reason whatsoever. Now, of course, there is no legal authority for this — it isn’t authorized by legislation and it’s never been put through the normal process for issuing regulations. But that has never stopped a New York executive agency before — they typically act as if they were a law unto themselves, and they just make up new “laws” as they wish.

Objections were made to the crypto-mandate, and so DFS went into “rope-a-dope” mode. They promised to study it, to discuss it with superiors, etc., etc. Nothing happened, despite repeated requests for clarification. The effect of this obfuscation and delay was that they ran out the clock until the end of the year, when every insurance plan has to be submitted for approval, including the model language.

As the deadline approached, DFS dropped the real bomb, the one that shows such patent bad faith that even completely cynical watchers of New York government were appalled. In an off-handed comment, a DFS official told a representative of the Catholic Church words to the effect that “Oh, what’s the problem, you’re already paying for therapeutic abortions”. When our representative picked himself off the floor and asked “how?” and “since when?” and “why didn’t you tell us?”, the bureaucrat said that it had been the case for a long time,  and that it was all under the rubric of “medically necessary surgery”, which is automatically covered in all health insurance policies. And, of course, there’s no exemption for religious employers or anyone else who objects to paying for the killing of unborn children.

So a sneaky, duplicitous state agency has been making Catholic institutions — and everyone else — pay for elective abortions for years and lying about it being “necessary surgery”. And this is all done without any public awareness or scrutiny — it’s just a secret fiat from some nameless bureaucrat who is accountable to nobody. So much for the rule of law.

Fortunately, people are pushing back against this gross abuse of power. A lawsuit has been filed by the Dioceses of Albany and Ogdensburg, Catholic Charities agencies, religious communities, and a number of non-Catholic institutions, including the Episcopal Diocese of Albany. This lawsuit raises major issues about religious liberty, and how to put limits on an arbitrary, unaccountable government that is insistent on imposing morally offensive mandates on religious groups and people.

Don’t listen to the skeptics. The threat to freedom of religion is real and present. And it will not go away, because the pro-abortion ideology is so deeply ingrained in our state government that they will brook no opposition, and will use any available tactic, until they enshrine abortion in every area of the law and drag everyone into complicity with the destruction of the innocents.

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.