A Distortion of Religious Liberty

November 19, 2012

Score one for the Catholic Church and everyone else who thinks religious liberty implies the right to impose their dogma on others. A federal judge has prohibited the Obama administration from requiring a publisher owned principally by a Christian foundation to provide its employees with contraceptive coverage, pursuant to the new health care law. The case is Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. v. Sebelius.

Judge Reggie Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia reasoned that the “contraceptive coverage mandate affirmatively compels the plaintiffs to violate their religious beliefs in order to comply with the law.” He concluded this was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from “substantially burdening” a person’s free exercise of religion. He further concluded that the RFRA applies to the publisher, Tyndale House, even though it is a for-profit corporation, because the beliefs of the corporation and its owners are “inseparable.”

This is a troubling decision. It significantly expands the protections already provided to the religious to refuse to engage in actions they regard as inconsistent with their beliefs.

It is one thing for the law to compel a competent adult to undergo a medical treatment s/he rejects as immoral on religious grounds. The First Amendment, as well as relevant statutory law, does prohibit this, and it should. It is quite another thing for the law to allow a company to obstruct the choices others make about which medical treatment to receive. Neither the RFRA nor the First Amendment should be used as a means to force one’s religious beliefs on others.

The contraceptive mandate is being challenged in a number of court cases, so Judge Walton’s decision will not be the last word. Ultimately, this issue may have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. One can only hope that by the time this issue reaches the Supreme Court there will be a majority who will recognize the proper scope of religious liberty.

If not, be prepared for companies imposing all sorts of restrictions on the choices made by employees and customers. A few months ago, when the first lawsuits against the contraceptive mandate were being filed, I imagined a situation in which a company owned by an Islamic foundation refused to include in its health insurance plan nursing services provided by women to male patients. If that hypothetical seemed far-fetched, Judge Walton’s ill-advised ruling makes clear it is all too real a possibility.