WASHINGTON (BP) — A diverse coalition of church and synagogue leaders has penned a letter to congressional leaders asking them to renew support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Citing the Supreme Court's ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and other leaders from around the country expressed concern that the 1993 law guaranteeing religious rights from overt government intrusion may soon come under attack because of its role in the June 30 landmark case.
In the letter addressed to Speaker of the House John Boehner, R.-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky., the signatories asked congressional leaders to stand firm against efforts to "amend or repeal RFRA, one of our nation's most vital legal protections for the religious freedom and rights of conscience of every person of every faith."
"Changing RFRA because some disagree with one particular application of the law would set a dark precedent by undermining the fundamental principle of religious freedom for all, even for those whose religious beliefs may be unpopular at the moment. Congress has never passed legislation with the specific purpose of reducing Americans' religious freedom. It should not consider doing so now," the letter reads.
Hobby Lobby storefront
The Supreme Court, in its ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, Mardel and Conestoga Wood Specialties, held that RFRA allows "closely-held" or family owned companies to establish administrative policies and business practices in line with their religious convictions.
In this case, those beliefs caused the Green and Hahn families, owners of the three businesses, to resist federal mandates in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to provide abortion-inducing contraceptives in their health insurance plans. Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the opinion for the majority, noted this is precisely the scenario for which RFRA was designed.
In RFRA, Congress provided protection for people like the defendants "by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA's definition of 'persons,'" Alito wrote. "But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends."
Alito noted, "When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people."
Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga and Mardel "protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies," Alito wrote.
According to the letter from religious leaders, the nation's high court rightly affirmed that all Americans – including family business owners – are guaranteed religious liberty as they live and, importantly, work.
"When President Clinton signed RFRA into law over twenty years ago, he finalized the work of overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the United States House and Senate. Only three Members of Congress voted against RFRA. Not one of Congress's 535 Members suggested that this landmark new law would not protect a person's free exercise of religion if she chose to provide for herself, her family, and her employees by starting a business," the letter stated.
"In the United States, freedom of religion has always included — and should always include — the right to live out one's religion and act according to one's conscience outside the walls of one's house of worship. Every single day, millions of Americans are motivated by their faith to go and serve the neediest among us. The good works of these individuals of faith can be seen in soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, hospices — and, yes, family-owned businesses.
"For over two decades, RFRA has protected Americans of all faiths from government coercion. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others all benefit when powerful government officials know that, as President Bill Clinton stated when he signed RFRA, government must meet 'a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion.'"
Moore, in a conference call with reporters June 30, said Alito's use of the RFRA in the Supreme Court ruling was a "rebuke" that had "knocked back any objections in the strongest terms."
"Christians should see this as not just a win for Christians. The Greens are Baptists and the Hahns are Mennonites. But this is a win for religious liberty for all people," Moore said. "A government that can pave over the consciences of the Greens and the Hahns is a government that can do anything."
Moore also told reporters that religious liberty should be "absolutely non-controversial in America," but he admitted that two different visions of religious liberty are in play in the country. One of those was expressed by Alito in his opinion for the court's majority. The other was expressed by the White House following the ruling.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in a White House press briefing that the president believes in religious liberty but doesn't believe the owners of for-profit companies should be "allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also said in a statement following the court's decision that the ruling will "immediately affect the lives of millions of women across the country" because of the language Alito used in the ruling. She also said not providing abortion-inducing drugs to employees violated the "religious rights" of workers.
"Over 90 percent of the America's businesses are 'closely-held,' including such large employers as Koch Industries and Bechtel," Pelosi said in her statement. "Women should not be forced to jump through extra hoops to secure the fundamental health care they need. Allowing employers and CEOs to limit the health care available to employees is a gross violation of their workers' religious rights. It's just not her boss's business."
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Hobby Lobby case is already having an impact in the lower courts, where nearly 100 cases challenging the contraceptive mandate of the ACA/Obamacare are in play.
Several religious organizations, including the Eternal Word Television Network and five Catholic institutions in Wyoming, all of which were scheduled to pay IRS fines July 1 for not complying with federal mandates for abortion-inducing contraceptives, were granted "emergency relief" immediately following the Hobby Lobby decision, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
In a press release, the Becket Fund said organizations like Eternal Word "can now freely practice what they preach."
"The death knell is sounding for the HHS Mandate," Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund and counsel for Eternal Word, said in the statement. "The ruling in Hobby Lobby and then these two rulings in quick succession show that the HHS Mandate is on its last legs when it comes to religious non-profits. The sad part is that it has taken almost three years of litigation to get to a result the administration should have supported in the first place because it is the right thing to do. Government shouldn't be in the business of forcing nuns to violate their religious convictions."
The five Wyoming Catholic entities provided emergency relief are the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Catholic Charities of Wyoming, St. Joseph's Children's Home, St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School, and Wyoming Catholic College, according to the statement from the Becket Fund.
The Supreme Court also issued a temporary injunction protecting Wheaton College while it appeals the government's ACA contraceptive mandate.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is not the first major defeat for the Obama administration with respect to religious liberty. In 2012, the administration lost in Hosana-Tabor v. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. In that case, the administration attempted to determine what the qualifications were for a minister within a religious organization. The Supreme Court ruled it could not interfere in employment cases decided upon religious grounds.
In addition to Moore of the ERLC, signatories to the letter to congressional leaders asking for renewed protection of the 1993 RFRA included:
Matthew C. Harrison, president, The Lutheran ChurchùMissouri Synod
Rabbi Leonard Matanky, president, and Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president, The Rabbinical Council of America
Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Charles E. Blake Sr., presiding bishop, Church of God in Christ
Gary E. Stevenson, presiding bishop, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
George O. Wood, general superintendent, Assemblies of God, USA
Nathan J. Diament, executive director for public policy, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
Dwayne O. Leslie, director of legislative affairs, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
L. Roy Taylor, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.)