The Corner

Fighting for Religious Liberty in Michigan: Conversation with the AG

Friday morning, the U.S. District court in Detroit will hear a plea from the Weingartz Supply Company, a Michigan-based, family-owned business, and Legatus, a professional association of Catholic business leaders, for a preliminary injunction to protect them from the HHS mandate requiring employers to pay for insurance covering contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

Contrary to widespread assumptions, as sold by the Obama administration, there has been no compromise on the mandate controversy, and in any discussions of potential accommodations of religious liberty in regard to this Affordable Care Act preventative-services regulation, a family that runs its business in accord with their faith-informed consciences are not part of the considerations. In fact, in the case of a Denver family-owned HVAC company, the Department of Justice has argued that the citizens forfeit their religious liberty rights in the marketplace and just yesterday the DOJ appealed a court’s decision there to grant the company an injunction.

Today the attorney general of Michigan, Bill Schuette, filed an amicus brief in defense of the religious liberty rights of the Weingartz lawnmower- and snowblower-parts supply company and Legatus (more here). He explains why he did this to National Review Online:

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What does a snowblower company have to do with contraception?

BILL SCHUETTE: The issue is about the First Amendment and religious liberty; more specifically, the question is whether a family-owned business that operates according to certain religious principles is protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We contend that ordinary people who run businesses also have a right to religious liberty. This could just as easily be a case about a Jewish-owned deli that the federal government prevented from selling Kosher food.

LOPEZ: What does your office have to do with a group of Catholic businessmen?

SCHUETTE: The attorney general in Michigan is the chief legal officer for the state and serves as a “watchdog” — that’s the description from Michigan’s constitutional convention — to protect the rights of the Michigan people. Michigan’s constitution specifically protects the religious liberty of Michigan’s residents, and the plaintiffs are Michigan residents.

LOPEZ: Is there a legitimate argument that the state should be protecting workers at Weingartz from their employer’s behind-the-times thinking?

SCHUETTE: That is a decision that the employees have to make for themselves. The question is whether the United States government can force a business to provide insurance for services that violate basic tenets of the employer’s religious principles when these services are otherwise widely available.#more#

LOPEZ: Of what concern is a “barren public culture” to a state attorney general?

SCHUETTE: The protection of religious liberty is one of the foremost of the freedoms of this country, listed first in the First Amendment because of its central importance. It is troubling — and we would argue, unconstitutional — when the United States government enacts policies that force private businesses and citizens to violate their religious principles, when there is no compelling reason to do so. The arguments advanced here in support of the HHS mandate would further force religious belief out of the public square in a way that would not serve our country well.

LOPEZ: Should papal encyclicals really be cited in legal documents?

SCHUETTE: The question whether there is a religious burden imposed on the plaintiffs is a question both of fact and law. One of the questions is whether the religious tenet being violated is really one of religion, and an important one. The best evidence of the teaching at issue here is the religious document itself. Religious documents from other religions would be relevant if the court were evaluating the government’s violation of the tenets of Islam or Judaism, or the duty not to work on Saturdays as the Sabbath for Seventh Day Adventists, as in in the Supreme Court case Sherbert v. Verner.

LOPEZ: What do you make of the “war on women” rhetoric employed in the defense of the HHS mandate?

SCHUETTE: That phony effort is simply an attempt to distract from religious liberty, which is the real matter at stake here. The suggestion that the services at issue here are not available, or that the federal government could not otherwise ensure their availability is unpersuasive.

LOPEZ: Does your move today respond to or otherwise better inform those who have heard President Obama claim he has “unwavering support” for religious freedom?

SCHUETTE: It’s hard to claim “unwavering support” when key policies enacted by your administration assault the fundamental First Amendment right to religious freedom.

LOPEZ: Do you have hope for the courts on this? For the future of religious liberty?

SCHUETTE: Yes, these are serious issues, and it’s no secret that the Obama administration is on the wrong side of the First Amendment. In addition to this case, President Obama recently took aim at what is known as the “ministerial exemption.” This allows religious groups to select their own employees, free from government interference.

In the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., the Obama administration argued that there should be an extremely limited ministerial exemption. The U.S. Supreme Court was not persuaded, ruling unanimously in favor of the religious school’s freedom. During oral arguments for the case, Justice Elena Kagan characterized Obama’s arguments as “amazing.”

In the sweeping ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “This decision makes resoundingly clear the historical and constitutional importance of keeping internal church affairs off limits to the government — because whoever chooses the minister chooses the message.”

There are several cases challenging the HHS mandate on First Amendment grounds, and I am optimistic that again the courts will side with freedom. To date, the only court that I am aware of to reach the merits of the issue has granted a preliminary injunction on behalf of liberty (Newland v. Sebelius).

LOPEZ: Do you have advice for voters on this issue, particularly in Michigan?

SCHUETTE: Yes, these are important issues and the voters should be paying attention. Democracy depends upon an informed and engaged electorate. Ultimately, the true defenders of liberty are not the government or the courts, but the people themselves.

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