Not So Compelling After All, Obama Administration and Religious Freedom

Frank Pavone
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Posted: Apr 13, 2016 12:01 AM
Not So Compelling After All, Obama Administration and Religious Freedom

The Obama administration has spent over four years trying to strong-arm religious organizations like the one I lead, Priests for Life, into violating our faith.  It has threatened that if we don’t deny our duties to God – something we will never do – it will levy crippling fines against us. 

Those threats have now taken us to the Supreme Court, where administration officials claim that the Obamacare law compels them to attack us.

It doesn’t.  The administration’s own actions demonstrate that there are no logical grounds in this case, “compelling” or otherwise, for religious liberty to be violated by government fiat.

The President and his appointees, for reasons that remain unclear, have relentlessly waged an offensive against religious non-profit organizations such as Priests for Life and the other 36 petitioners in this Supreme Court case, not to mention all the petitioners whose cases are still in the lower courts.  There have been well over 100 lawsuits filed against the Administration in defense of religious liberty – lawsuits that would have been completely unnecessary had the government not tried to pressure us to violate our religion.

This all began with the HHS mandate, a rule drafted not by Congress, but by political appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services.  The mandate orders that some religious organizations must include abortion-causing drugs and other gravely sinful products and services in our employee health insurance plans.  But the mandate also allows some religious organizations – and a great many for-profit corporations – to avoid providing the same coverage if they want.

The government says that it’s basing this selective mandate on a “compelling interest” to make abortifacients and contraceptives available to women through employer health care plans.  But if this interest is so compelling, why is it only imposed on certain employers?

While the administration is wielding the full force of government power to try to beat into submission Catholic priests and nuns and Christian organizations, it feels no such compulsion to enforce the HHS mandate against ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Pepsi Cola Bottling.  Those corporations, and others, are exempt from the mandate’s requirements.

We have a situation, then, where the government is bringing a sledge hammer against religious non-profit groups that oppose abortion and leaving certain private for-profit businesses untouched -- including many who do not even object to the mandate. 

Under the terms of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed by Congress with almost unanimous support, the government cannot substantially burden the exercise of religion without showing that it is acting to further a “compelling interest,” and then by the least restrictive means. For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on how uncompelling the government's interest is in this case.

When it comes, for instance, to federal income taxes, the government can force a religious pacifist to pay them even if those taxes finance the building of weapons because it has a compelling interest in maintaining universal participation in the tax system. 

As the Ethics and Public Policy Center states in its friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court, “…only those interests that are so weighty that they would justify the derogation of constitutional rights are ‘compelling.’”

Here, with the HHS mandate, the government asserts a compelling interest in providing women with cost-free birth control drugs, devices, and procedures without “administrative and logistical obstacles.”  In reality, though, the government only asserts this “compelling” interest in some cases.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, fully one-third of all Americans are exempt from the HHS mandate.  While the government claims it’s “compelling” to make abortifacients available with “administrative convenience” to the women who work for Priests for Life, it’s apparently not so compelling to make them available to the women who work for Visa.

And while it’s deemed “compelling” for the Obama administration to force the Archdioceses of Washington, Pittsburgh, and Erie to participate in the distribution of gravely sinful abortion-causing drugs to their employees, the City of New York is not similarly situated under the federal government’s thumb.

If a woman’s health care plan was “grandfathered” into the Obamacare system, she is not affected by the HHS mandate.  If her plan doesn’t include all of the various abortion/contraceptive and sterilization methods included under the mandate, she must obtain such coverage elsewhere, perhaps through an Obamacare health insurance exchange.  The government is fine with this.

If a woman works for a house of worship, she also is not affected by the HHS mandate.  The government is fine with this, too.  After all, the administration spent billions of dollars to make health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage easily available through its exchanges. Surely, the administration can’t argue that the Obamacare system presents “administrative” or “logistical obstacles.”

But if a woman works for Priests for Life, it’s a different story.  The government insists that an organization whose very purpose is to oppose abortion should be forced to make abortion-causing drugs readily available to its female employees.

The administration’s position is so inconsistent, so implausible that it’s almost laughable.  There’s nothing funny, though, about our government using false pretenses to attack religious freedom.