Court rebukes administration’s ‘narrow’ religious liberty view

Chicago, Ill., Nov 15, 2013 / 04:12 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Obama administration’s defense of the HHS mandate is “unsound and extraordinary” for contending that business owners cannot have religious freedom protections.

“The government’s argument is premised on a far-too-narrow view of religious freedom: Religious exercise is protected in the home and the house of worship but not beyond,” the court’s Nov. 12 decision in Grote Industries v. Sebelius said.

“Religious people do not practice their faith in that compartmentalized way; free-exercise rights are not so circumscribed.”

Compelling businesses owners and their companies to provide services such as abortion-causing drugs and devices, sterilization, and contraception “substantially burdens their religious exercise rights,” the court wrote.

The government’s argument that religious exercise claims are irrelevant to commercial activity would “leave religious exercise wholly unprotected in the commercial sphere.”

“On the government’s understanding of religious liberty, a Jewish restaurant operating for profit could be denied the right to observe Kosher dietary restrictions.”

“That cannot be right. There is nothing inherently incompatible between religious exercise and profit-seeking.”

The case concerned Indiana-based Grote Industries, a manufacturer and marketer of vehicle lighting and safety systems. The company’s Catholic owners object to the federal HHS mandate, which requires employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, argued before the court on behalf of the company.

“The decision rightly foresees the dangers of allowing government to have this kind of power,” he stated Nov. 12. “If the government can force family business owners to act contrary to their deepest convictions under the threat of fining them out of business, it is a danger to everybody.”

Bowman said a majority of other rulings on the mandate have found it to “excessively conflict with our nation’s guarantee of religious freedom to all Americans.”

“All Americans, including job creators, should be free to honor God and live according to their faith.”

The decision suspends the HHS mandate for the Grote family and Grote Industries. It also suspends the mandate for the Kortes family and their construction company, Illinois-based K & L Contractors.

The appeals court ruled that corporations qualify as legal persons under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and may invoke its protections.

The HHS mandate is the subject of dozens of cases across the country, involving nearly 200 plaintiffs. Several courts, including appellate courts, have ruled in favor of those seeking injunctions against the mandate's enforcement upon them.

On Nov. 1 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the appellants in Gilardi v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The court found that the mandate places a “substantial burden” on the religious freedom of Francis and Philip Gilardi, two brothers who are Catholic and who own of Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, granting the Gilardis a preliminary injunction against the mandate's enforcement.

The court said the Gilardi brothers are “trying to run their business in accordance with their religious beliefs,” though it did not rule that the companies themselves have free exercise rights.

Circuit Judge Brown, writing the court's opinion, said, “we conclude (the Affordable Care Act) does … trammel the right of free exercise – a right that lies at the core of our constitutional liberties.”

Moreover, that decision noted that some of the contraceptives are classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization and indicate an increased risk for breast, cervical and liver cancers, saying that “the science is debatable and may actually undermine the government's cause.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer – part of the World Health Organization – lists estrogen-progestogen oral contraception as a Group 1 known carcinogen, the same category as asbestos, tobacco products and ultraviolet radiation.

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