EDITORIAL: Religion trumps Obamacare

Federal court puts the contraception mandate in the waiting room

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Win one for the good guys. Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic institution, and Wheaton College, which is Christian, sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over an Obamacare rule mandating the schools to pay for contraception, contrary to their religious beliefs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed Tuesday that the administration had gone too far.

The HHS rule said businesses had to provide contraceptive coverage in the health insurance they offered their employees, regardless of their religious beliefs. Religious employers had an exemption, but HHS decided to apply this only to organizations with a religious purpose, employing and targeting primarily members of the same faith. That left Belmont Abbey and Wheaton, as well as many others that have filed similar suits across the country, with no choice but to pay for items including abortion pills under the threat of $2,000 in fines per employee.

A lower court initially dismissed the colleges’ complaint as premature, especially as the administration promised that a new rule for religious institutions would be implemented in August. The colleges appealed, arguing that the existing rule is the law and they need certainty to plan for the 2014 open enrollment season. The administration claimed it wasn’t going to enforce the rule “in its current form,” so the appellate court seized upon that statement as a “binding commitment.” The judges will “take the government at its word and will hold it to it” while approving a stay on the contraception mandate. HHS will have to file status reports with the appellate court every 60 days until a new rule is promulgated.

A U.S. District judge in New York earlier this month took a similar line in allowing the Archdiocese of New York to proceed in a separate suit on the same issue. “The First Amendment does not require citizens to accept assurances from the government that, if the government later determines it has made a misstep, it will take ameliorative action,” the judge wrote. “There is no, ‘Trust us, changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution.”

The judicial recognition of the importance of religious freedom is a good sign, but the victory is temporary at best. The problem with President Obama’s policy is that it offers a narrow view of the First Amendment as freedom to worship rather than the free exercise of religion. The prospect for religiously affiliated nonprofits just got brighter, which is welcome news to groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who also are subject to the mandate and its onerous penalties. Religious publisher Tyndale House also has secured an injunction against the Obamacare mandate even though it is a for-profit concern. Left out of the discussion for now are the privately owned commercial enterprises such as the craft retailer Hobby Lobby whose owners have moral objections to the mandate. Free exercise of religion should not be contingent on an organization’s tax status.

The Washington Times

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