How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

THE RELIGION GUY EXPLAINS:

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions.

The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

The Baptist also accused the Obama Administration of “cavalier disregard of religious liberty” and lamented that not long ago no-one could have imagined such an attack on religious rights. That might sound overwrought, but traditionalists express alarm that getting all contraception without cost would overrule Constitutional protection of conscience. An April Kaiser Health poll showed 55 percent of Americans think companies should cover birth control “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” More broadly, last year’s Newseum poll found 34 percent believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in upholding citizens’ freedoms, up from 13 percent in 2012.

A few technicalities: Many articles said this ruling denies “access” to birth control, but the Court guaranteed that 49 years ago. Rather, the issue is whether women employees must pay $500 to $1,000 for IUD placements or the modest cost of the pills. Hobby Lobby opposes only those two methods and, like most Protestants, has no problems with the 16 other birth control options in the federal mandate. (The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress doesn’t actually mandate birth control coverage, which the Obama Administration added later.) Though some ridicule the idea that companies have rights the way individuals do, the Court cited well-established precedents for treating corporations as ”persons” for legal purposes.

The ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in 1993, when the two political parties were more united on religious matters.

No-one questions that the Protestant owners hold a sincere religious belief and that it was heavily burdened by the Obama mandate. It could have cost Hobby Lobby fines of $475 million a year. The penalty would be far cheaper if Hobby Lobby simply dropped health insurance but the owners believe coverage is their Christian duty — and good business practice.

The 1993 act says government needs a “compelling interest” (which the Court assumed is the case here) to deny a religious claim, and then only when it’s the “least restrictive means” available. On that last point, Alito’s opinion said government has the option of simply paying for the troublesome coverage itself. (For that matter, birth control proponents could donate disputed methods.)

We’re only at the mid-point of this fight. The American Civil Liberties Union counts 44 pending cases filed by for-profit companies and another 40 from non-profit groups. These involve some Protestants but mostly Catholics, whose church opposes all “unnatural” contraception methods and sterilizations. Some analysts think the Supreme Court might reject religious appeals and accept the Obama “accommodation” that lets group pass offending payments along to insurers. But religious petitioners believe that compromise still forces them to participate in evil.

Down the road, federal courts face related, emotion-laden issues on exemptions for those with religious objections to gay marriage, gay adoptions, and unwed partners living together.

The “Friendly Atheist” blogger at patheos.com, Hemant Mehta, is among those who say Hobby Lobby won a hollow victory. He asserts that “Christianity has been used as a weapon of discrimination,” which will offend younger Americans, erode churches’ “social power,” and cause people to quit any organization that “takes joy in denying others freedom and happiness.”

That gets a partial amen from evangelicals at the Gospel Coalition. They say the sexual revolution has made such moral qualms “seem increasingly odd or fanciful.” The Coalition thinks this culture clash is “less about the role of religion in business or politics and more about which vision of humanity leads to flourishing and should therefore be enshrined in or favored by law.” In today’s society, they warn, Christians “can’t rely on the courts.”

Texts of the Supreme Court ruling and filings in this case: Click here.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

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