Congressional Democrats have set themselves against the Supreme Court in the battle over religious liberty, and the lead Southern Baptist spokesman on the issue is urging legislative leaders not to erode the First Amendment right.
Democrats in the Senate unveiled a bill July 9 to counter the high court’s decision in support of the religious freedom of business owners in the controversial Hobby Lobby case. The Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act would bar any federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), from exempting an employer from abiding by the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate. That rule, implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to enforce the 2010 healthcare reform law, requires employers to provide for their workers drugs and devices that can potentially cause abortions.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called for leaders in both the Senate and House of Representatives to resist efforts to weaken RFRA, which requires the government to have a compelling interest and to use narrow means to burden a person’s religious exercise.
There should not be “a toggle switch” that the government uses to decide “who may and may not exercise religious liberty,” Moore said in a statement for Baptist Press. “And as the Supreme Court rightly affirmed, American citizens do not forfeit their First Amendment rights simply because they engage in commerce.
The Supreme Court
“And yet, now some would jeopardize religious freedom in order to fight their culture war,” he said. “Religious liberty is too important to everyone in this country to see it end up a dead trophy on the wall of the sexual revolutionaries.”
In its June 30 opinion, the 5-4 Supreme Court majority relied on RFRA in ruling for the religious liberty rights of Hobby Lobby and other family owned, for-profit businesses that conscientiously objected to the mandate to pay for abortifacients. RFRA, a 1993 law that was approved nearly unanimously by Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton, protects the religious freedom of people by extending rights to the corporations they own, the court said.
In a letter Thursday (July 10) to congressional leaders, Moore said Southern Baptists “will vigorously oppose any legislative efforts that attempt to … restrict the free exercise of religion.”
RFRA “defends the religious freedom of all Americans and is a critical safeguard for minority faith communities,” he wrote.
It also “is a means of accountability for governmental officials who must defend any proposed restriction of religious liberty,” Moore said. “Rather than automatically grant any complaint that may be brought forth by protected citizens, RFRA provides a method for courts to weigh religious liberty with governmental interests. Religious liberty is a gift from God, not a grant from government, and a fundamental pillar of the American experiment.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom criticized the Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act, S. 2578, as “an exceedingly dangerous power grab.”
“No new law should make an HHS bureaucrat more powerful than federal law itself,” ADF senior counsel Casey Mattox said in a written statement. “Senate Bill 2578 should be called the ‘Late-Term Abortion and Assisted Suicide Coercion Act of 2014’ because it allows any whim of HHS to trump any federal law or rule, including those that protect Americans from being forced to provide abortion or assisted suicide coverage as part of a health plan. The bill clearly states that any HHS regulation requiring something in a health plan must be followed regardless of what any other federal law says.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D.-Wash., sponsor of the bill to reverse the Hobby Lobby ruling, said her legislation “will ensure that no CEO or corporation can come between people and their guaranteed access to health care, period.”
The measure has 39 cosponsors, all Democrats. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D.-N.Y., introduced a companion bill in the House. Abortion rights organizations, led by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-Choice America, endorsed the legislation, as did such groups as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and People for the American Way.
Introduction of the legislation came six days after the Supreme Court delivered another win for religious liberty to HHS mandate foes, this time to a non-profit institution.
The high court issued an order July 3 preventing enforcement of the HHS mandate against Wheaton College until the appeal process is complete. The legal challenge by Wheaton, an evangelical Christian school in suburban Chicago, is one of 100 lawsuits filed against the mandate, with 51 of those by non-profits, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The justices’ order in support of Wheaton appeared far-reaching. It said the school – and, by likely extension, other objectors – need only inform HHS it is a religious non-profit with “religious objections” to the mandate to avoid enforcement during review by the courts. The college need not fill out the form required by the government, the justices said. The court said the order should not be interpreted as a communication of its opinion on the case’s merits.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a 15-page dissent in which she described the court’s order for Wheaton as “extraordinary and reserved for the rarest of cases.” Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined in the dissent.
Philip Ryken, Wheaton’s president, applauded the order. “We continue to believe that a college community that affirms the sanctity of human life from conception to the grave should not be coerced by the government into facilitating the provision of abortion-inducing drugs,” he said in a written release.
Other non-profits gained relief from the mandate the same day the Supreme Court issued its Hobby Lobby opinion. Two federal appeals courts blocked enforcement of the regulation on the Eternal World Television Network and five Roman Catholic institutions in Wyoming, according to the Becket Fund.
The HHS regulation requires coverage of such drugs as Plan B and other “morning-after” pills that possess a post-fertilization mechanism that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers “ella,” which – in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 – can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.
HHS provided an exemption to its rule for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, non-profit organizations and for-profit companies that object. The administration also offered an accommodation for non-church-related religious organizations, but critics said it was inadequate because it still forces such groups to provide access to the drugs through third parties.
GuideStone Financial Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention’s health and financial benefits entity, and two of the organizations in its health plan have challenged the mandate in court and have asked for a permanent injunction. No decision has been made on the request.
The Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling came in challenges to the mandate by Hobby Lobby and Mardel, both owned by the evangelical Green family of Oklahoma City, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which is operated by the pro-life, Mennonite Hahn family.
Moore’s July 10 letter went to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House John Boehner and others in congressional leadership.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)