Religious Freedom Update

The fight for religious freedom goes on. The Supreme Court is weighing in on this important issue in a number of related cases recently.

In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, which concerned the Obama administration’s attempts to deny religious freedom to those who object to the ObamaCare Contraception Mandate. This mandate, authorized by The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) but determined in the sole discretion of former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, stipulates that all health insurance policies must provide certain “essential health benefits”.

Sebelius determined these benefits would include free contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and medications that could induce abortion called abortifacients, such as Ella and Plan B. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions strongly objected to this mandate as it violates their religious freedom. The result of these objections was a so-called “accommodation” from the Obama administration that satisfied no one. For details on this see my earlier blog entitled The ObamaCare Contraception Mandate.

Failure to satisfy the objections of these religious institutions has resulted in two classes of lawsuits – for-profit companies and non-profit companies or institutions. The for-profit companies, represented by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, had their day in court in March and the decision of the court is expected in June.

The non-profits are represented by Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic organization of nuns who provide supportive services to the elderly poor and disabled. They were issued a temporary restraining order by Justice Sonia Sotomayor until their case can be heard by the U.S. 10th District Court of Appeals in Denver in June.

However, the non-profits battle is also being fought in the nation’s capital. Last week the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard arguments by lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Their case, like Little Sisters of the Poor, objects to the Contraception Mandate on religious freedom grounds. It is likely the government will win this round in this Obama-friendly court of two new Obama appointees: Judges Nina Pillard and Robert Wilkins. The third judge, Judith Rogers, was a Clinton appointee.

But the case will undoubtedly go to the Supreme Court just as the Little Sisters of the Poor case will do after the decision is handed down by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Win or lose, the Supreme Court will make the final determination.

There is some reason for optimism for those who value religious freedom. A recent decision of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the upstate New York town of Greece when it appealed for the right to begin meetings of the board of supervisors with prayer. Washington Post columnist George Will described the decision thus: “This ruling would not have scandalized James Madison and other members of the First Congress, which drafted and sent to the states for ratification the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights. The Congress did this after hiring a chaplain.”

In 1983 the Supreme Court held:

“The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

The Greece board meetings have allowed people of all faiths to pray including Jewish, Baha’i, and a Wiccan priestess who prayed to Athena and Apollo, although most prayers are based on the Christian faith. But secularists will surely be convinced the court is trying to establish religion. Look for this ruling to be challenged again in the future.

George Washington’s Opinion

This issue of religious freedom is as old as the Republic.  Seth Lipsky, writing in The American Spectator, reminds us of an important letter written by our first president. In 1790, President George Washington responded to the congregation of Touro Synagogue, a Jewish place of worship in Rhode Island. He sent his letter in response to the welcome addressed to him when he visited the synagogue. The letter was intended to encourage the people.

Washington said that he was pleased that the members of the Touro Synagogue had a favorable opinion of his administration and had expressed “fervent wishes for my felicity”.  He went on to say, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

This clearly is taken from Micah 4:4, which says, “Everyone will live in peace and prosperity, enjoying their own grapevines and fig trees, for there will be nothing to fear.” How refreshing to have a president who knows and applies scripture!

The important word here is afraid. There is no doubt that the Green and Hahn families of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, as well as The Little Sisters of the Poor and all who value their religious freedom are afraid. They fear the loss of their religious freedom, but even more they fear the wrath of God should they contribute to terminating the life of an unborn. The Bible teaches, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

Therefore, if Washington’s prayer was that “there shall be none to make him afraid”, what right does the Obama administration have to bring fear into the hearts of its citizens who only want to enjoy the freedom of practicing their religion without the interference of the government? Was not that the issue upon which our Republic was founded? Have we so soon forgotten the sacrifice of our forefathers to win the right to worship God without fear?

Lipsky frames the debate well: “It is about whether America will make its religious citizens live in fear or leave. Washington clearly considered the question. He eventually warned, in his farewell address that ‘reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.’ Washington closed his letter to the Jews with a prayer that could serve the Supreme Court well. ‘May the father of all mercies, scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.’ ”

This month of June is sure to bring news of decisions from the courts that will have monumental impact on the religious freedom of this and future generations. We can only hope and pray that our current justices will see things as clearly as our forefathers and first president did.

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