Hey, LA Times, there’s more to HHS fight than Hobby Lobby

First things first: I have to admit that I almost choked on my diet cherry cola when I read the double-decker headline on this Los Angeles Times news feature about the next round of cultural warfare at the U.S. Supreme Court. Ready? You have been warned:

In new term, Supreme Court may steer to right on key social issues

The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has a clear chance to shift the law to the right on abortion, contraception, religion and campaign funding

Now, faithful GetReligion readers will know that — as a pro-life Democrat — I am not pleased when journalists slap simplistic religious or political labels on people. In particular, it is often important to separate religious doctrine from political beliefs. When covering Republicans, it is also crucial to grasp that there are people who are conservative on economic and openly political issues, while veering to the left on moral and cultural issues. This familiar name leaps to mind: Justice Anthony Kennedy.

So I understand that, on some issues, the current high court does contain five people who from time to time form a “conservative bloc.” But does this court really contain a “conservative bloc” when addressing moral, cultural and religious issues?

To understand my main problem with the content of this story, it helps to see the framing. Let’s get started:

If the justices on the right agree among themselves, they could free wealthy donors to give far more to candidates and parties and clear the way for exclusively Christian prayers at local government events.

Wait, what’s with the “clear the way” language? Isn’t the issue whether citizens, under the First Amendment, can CONTINUE to offer prayers that contain exclusively Christian images and language? I mean, I hate to break this to folks on the left coast, but lots of folks have been using Trinitarian language in public prayers in the American heartland for a long, long time. This is news? The issue is whether the state has the power to forbid, control or at the very least edit this form of speech.

Back to the story’s overture and the passage that sure as heckfire caught my attention:

By next spring, the justices are likely to revisit part of President Obama’s healthcare law to decide a religious-rights challenge to the requirement that large private employers provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives. Dozens of employers who run for-profit companies have sued, contending that providing health insurance that includes a full range of contraceptives violates their religious beliefs.

Yes, it is possible that the court will take a second look at the fine details in that healthcare law. We know that because one of its most liberal members dropped a hint about that in her written opinion in support of the “individual mandate” plank in the Health and Human Services regulations.

As Catholic News Service noted at the time:

Challengers of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate may have been handed a surprising advantage by the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, in its partial dissent on the health care reform law.

“A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, (or) interfered with the free exercise of religion,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a June 28 opinion supporting the law’s “individual mandate.”

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the religious-liberty implications of the mandate may reach the court again. This may be news to the Los Angeles Times team, but not to people who closely follow church-state currents here inside the DC Beltway.

But here is what surprised me in that summary of the facts. I am aware that Hobby Lobby, a company owned by evangelical Christians, and a few other for-profit companies are challenging the HHS regulations requiring them to fund benefits that clearly violate their religious beliefs. This is an important issue: Does a person’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion end when they own a for-profit company?

That said, I was not aware that “dozens of employers who run for-profit companies” have taken this issue to court. Several, for sure. But dozens?

Now, is it possible that the newspaper’s editors have confused this important issue linked to “for-profit” institutions with the tsunami of conflicts, and court cases, tied to the rights of non-profit religious schools and ministries? These cases, in particular, are linked to this language in the mandates:

Group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, and group health insurance coverage in connection with such plans, are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A religious employer is one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii). …

In other words, the minute a school or a ministry starts working with people of other faiths, it risks being viewed as “not religious enough” for this exemption. There have been dozens of lawsuits filed by colleges (some linked to my employer, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) and non-profit ministries, including some that are rooted in the practice of a specific faith and others that are quite nondenominational.

Thinking of this as a matter of public relations for the White House, it is one thing to threaten the economic future and the religious liberty of rich evangelicals who run a for-profit company like Hobby Lobby. It is something else to be poised to crush the work of nuns who insist that their Catholic faith requires them to help the non-Catholic poor as well as the needy in their own flock.

As I wrote not that long ago, journalists could end up covering The United States of America vs. The Little Sisters of the Poor.

Do the folks at the Los Angeles Times know about the non-profit ministry side of this looming court clash, or with that “dozens” reference are they assuming that this is all about the rights of for-profit business folks?

Just asking.

The court may choose to address both of those issues in one case or it may separate them. It’s hard to cover that issue if you don’t know the difference.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Some real strong points in this posting especially mention of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
    I have had a suspicion for a while that she is worried about how government power could be used to attack Jewish customs and related” business” entities the way Catholic teachings and related “business” entities are under assault by government power. (Let alone those who individually have a strong faith and just want to be left alone.)

    • tmatt

      Deacon:

      A few traditional liberals remain part of American life.

      As I have said here before: I don’t know what journalists should call people who are weak on free speech, on freedom of association and freedom of religion, but historically speaking the word “liberal” does not apply.

      • John Pack Lambert

        Progressive seems to be a much better term for them. Although, it is still in many ways a loaded and value laden term, since “progress” is usually presented as inherently a good thing.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “If the justices on the right agree among themselves, they could free wealthy donors to give far more to candidates and parties”

    Am I to take the implication from that sentence that this will benefit the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party? There are no wealthy donors who contribute to party funds for left-wing and/or progressive causes? Very quick looking up about Jeff Bezos on Wikipedia tells me “In July 2012, Bezos and his wife personally donated $2.5 million to pass a same-sex marriage referendum in Washington. According to Newsmeat.com, a web site that documents political donations made by “the powerful, rich, and famous” since 1977 (and donations higher than $200), Bezos has donated $16,000 to United States Democrats, $2,000 to United States Republicans, and $55,000 to special interests as of September 6, 2012.”

    Whatever about the “exclusively Christian” language, that is scare-mongering – if the conservatives on the Supreme Court get their way, the right-wing will buy their way into power and the consequences are too terrible to contemplate (but presumably “exclusively Christian”, given that this is the next clause of the sentence).
    My opinion on that? “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought”.

    • tmatt

      And your comments on the journalism issue raised in this post?

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        It’s opinionating: scary right-wing shift means sinister right-wing rich people can buy power and influence in government.
        There’s certainly a story to be done about campaign funding, the way both politicians and interested donors manage to get around the limits, and a comparison of total donations – I’d like to know if the Republicans and the Democrats get equal (more or less) amounts of funding or if it tilts in the favour of one party over another – or, as I suspect, do businesses give a dollop of funding to both sides on the basis that, whichever candidate gets in, at least you have the door open to talk to them?
        But I don’t think that’s this story – it’s all about the right-ward drift of the Court and how that is somehow going to bring about a theocracy (for ill-defined reasons).
        How about a story about why it is that legislation seems to be decided more through the courts than by the legislative body of the country? If it really is the case that the government makes such a pudding of the laws that it will fall to the Supreme Court to sort out the mess, isn’t that indicative of a need for drastic change in how the government gets legal advice? I’d be more interested in that than a story about “Oh, it looks like there will be what we interpret as a right-wing majority on a court which we seem to assume without any question is going to be the body responsible for how this new legislation is put into practice”.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Well, I am glad that the LA Times is at least acknowledging that there is a religious freedom issue for the for profit employers. Early on it seemed there was an attempt to ignore it totally.
    Although, if Hobby Lobby wins, it will be very hard for the government to force the Little Sister of the Poor.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This article just conflates way too many things. To even treat issue of prayer in public meetings and donations to campaigns in the same sentence seems a bit much. True, they are largely linked because both involve the free speech rights of individuals, but the Times has avoided explaining that. Probably, because if they did explain the free speech rights involved in both cases it would undermine their scare mongering.

  • wmrharris

    As to coverage of companies challenging the contraceptive provision of the ACA, the blog Rheality Check counted 18 in March, of which a significant portion were taking stances as Roman Catholics (the biggest: Dominos, also the auto supplier Autocam).

    An Oct 3 post on Mother Jones also details the substance of these challenges, as well. For purpose of clarification, the Mother Jones report also notes how the contraceptive challenge ties in with election funding through the determination of Citizen’s United that corporations have qualified free speech rights.


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