Protecting Conscience Rights

by Jordan Lorence

Last Friday, in a victory for religious liberty, a federal district court judge ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) signed by President Clinton in 1993 provides the Newland family and Hercules Industries an exemption from the HHS mandate. The Obama administration made a tactical blunder by assuming that the only employers having objections to paying for abortifacients and contraceptives would be religious nonprofit organizations. Or else they assumed that no one would care if the government suppressed everyone else’s religious freedom. So HHS officials gave some religious nonprofits the façade of an extra year without enforcement of the mandate, thinking that it had kicked the controversy past Election Day.

But individuals also have religious objections to paying for abortifacients and contraceptives for their employees, hence the lawsuit by Hercules, a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning company owned by the siblings of the Newland family of Colorado, who are devout Catholics. Because Hercules is a private family-owned business, the one-year delay of government enforcement that some nonprofits received did not apply to it. Instead the Newlands faced an August deadline for their company to put together a health plan that complies with the new rules.

This is the first case to rule on whether the government can justify its arbitrary, unnecessary mandate against those with a conscientious objection to providing abortifacients and contraceptives, and it drew large boundaries for religious freedom. In that respect, it was just following the lead of Congress, which in RFRA protects “any” free exercise of religion. Neither RFRA nor the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause have an “exception” not protecting families when they try to earn a living. 

If the government can’t justify its mandate against a family-owned private business, it is equally true that RFRA would protect Evangelical colleges like Geneva and Louisiana College, or the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and other institutions that are not-for-profit.  The Newlands’ case demonstrates that people with religious convictions have the freedom to follow religious beliefs Monday through Friday and not just on Sundays or in soup kitchens.  They own businesses and hold professional licenses, and the federal government cannot coerce them to violate their faith just because they take that faith outside of the exclusive enclave of churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations. This first victory set broad boundaries for religious liberty, as Congress and the Constitution already have done.

 — Jordan Lorence is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, actively defending marriage laws and amendments throughout the U.S.

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