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August 1: The Day the U.S. Definition of Religious Freedom Changes



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“I feel we’re all Catholic today,” Mitt Romney said at a campaign event last week in Bowling Green, Ohio. He was talking about religious freedom and the narrow exceptions the White House has carved out for religious organizations in the wake of the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception.

Much of the reporting and policy debate surrounding the mandate has focused on the religious institutions that have conscience objections to the paying for this coverage. But Romney emphasized an aspect of the mandate that is still underappreciated: The mandate will also affect business owners who have not offered and do not want to offer coverage that is an affront to their consciences.

“Whether it’s a Catholic businessperson or the Catholic Church itself they’re being told what they have to do that violates their religious conscience,” Romney said, clarifying the fuller impact of the mandate. “That attack on religious freedom, I think, is a dangerous and unfortunate precedent. . . . In our battle to preserve religious freedom and tolerance . . . in this country, it is essential for us to push back against that,” he continued.

The Newland family of Denver, Colo., are among those whose religious liberties will be curtailed come August 1, the date the mandate goes into effect. Since they are not a religious organization of any sort, they are not eligible for the one-year waiver the administration has offered. They run Hercules Industries, a distributor of heating, air conditioning, and ventilation parts. This afternoon they find themselves in federal court asking for an injunction so that they might continue to enjoy the conscience rights they’ve always had in the 50-year run of their family business. As Catholics, they can’t in good conscience provide insurance plans that cover abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception.

The administration argues in its brief in the case that this curtailment of their rights is as it should be: “Once [an organization] enters the marketplace of commerce in any substantial degree it loses the complete control over its membership that it would otherwise enjoy if it confined its affairs to the marketplace of ideas.” 

“America is a country founded on freedom, not on a presumption of government coercion,” Matthew Bowman, the Newlands’ lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom tells me. “Religious freedom in America has always included the way people exercise their beliefs Monday through Friday, not just on Sundays and in soup kitchens. If the government succeeds in destroying religious freedom for family businesses, they won’t be able to allow Jesus Christ to reign over their entire lives.” It’s the freedom to be authentically Christian.

The bind the Newlands are in — your conscience or your business — is not unrelated to the frenzy over the “you didn’t build that” controversy. “Business owners are citizens, family members, and Americans,” Bowman says. “The president strongly implied that business owners are not primarily responsible for their success. That is consistent with his position in this lawsuit that families in business are not responsible for pursuing their chosen values. The question is not whether families and communities support each other in business. The question is whether anyone but the government gets to decide whose values to freely pursue. If the government can declare the Gospel unwelcome in business because the president has deemed [business] inherently “secular,” no ethical standard can be used to advocate in business for a just wage, responsible investment practices, or environmental stewardship in business. No person could follow business principles unless they are dictated by the government.”

The Newlands aren’t the only family facing a conscience conflict, but their health-care plan enrollment year begins in November, making whether to comply with the mandate an imminent decision for them. The Heplers are another family who own a multi-generational business, a lumber company in Pennsylvania. They are Catholic and want to be able to run their business in a way that is consistent with their values. They’ve joined a lawsuit with Geneva College, a Presbyterian school, demonstrating the ecumenical nature of the conflict, and the fact that it’s not just Catholic institutions and social-service organizations whose religious liberty is threatened by the unprecedented regulatory power the Affordable Care Act has given the Department of Health and Human Services. 

UPDATE: A ruling is coming Friday.



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