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The EditorsJuly 08, 2014
Demonstrator chants in support of federal contraception mandate outside U.S. Supreme Court. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

The fireworks had not yet filled the sky, but the week of July Fourth started with a celebratory explosion for those who hold close one of the same civic values as our revolutionary forebears, namely the free exercise of religion. In a 5-to-4 decision on June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the so-called Hobby Lobby case that the federal government cannot force the owners of closely held corporations to provide, through employee health plans, contraception services that they find objectionable on religious grounds. “HHS’s contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion,” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the majority opinion, for the mandate required the Christians who own Hobby Lobby “to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”

The rockets’ red glare quickly followed on the Internet as combatants on either side of the issue stormed the digital battlements for final detonations of celebration or denunciation. The scorching reactions in each camp, however, are by and large unfounded. The court offered an important corrective to the Department of Health and Human Services’ flawed contraception mandate. It is important for what it seeks to protect, but it was also sensible and limited.

But after months of litigation and cultural combat in the media, the two sides on this civil matter are speaking well past each other. Many supporters of no-cost contraception have become incapable of comprehending the religious liberty claims of employers; many opponents of the mandate trade in the darkest suspicions of government intentions and shut down avenues of empathy that might allow a clearer hearing of the concerns of people on the other side of the debate.

America has vigorously denounced government overstepping in this arena while at the same time expressing concern that the church may have joined the public policy discussions in too great detail. Now we find ourselves as befuddled as most Americans, struggling with the qualifiers and worst-case-scenario spinning inspired by this cultural confrontation.

The court ruling has been framed by many as a victory for religious freedom. This it is, but this view of the outcome is perhaps too narrow. The ruling also represents the triumph of liberalism, in its broadest sense: the political philosophy that seeks to maximize human freedom and foster a robust civil society in which private entities—individuals, of course, but also religious institutions and businesses—can pursue their definition of the common good.

In a pluralistic country like the United States, there will inevitably be conflicting visions of that good. In this case, some will not be satisfied until the contraception mandate is repealed; others, until every woman has unfettered access to all forms of birth control.

The court proposes that the continuing impasse over the H.H.S. mandate could be resolved through the existing accommodation to nonprofit religious employers offered by the Obama administration, suggesting in a footnote how that accommodation could be further modified to address the concerns of religious employers. In doing so it seeks a way out that, while clearly imperfect, respects the reasonable freedom and conscience claims of both sides. On the one hand, employees may yet have access to services through alternative means as they manage their reproductive health and family planning in accordance with their consciences. On the other hand, business owners informed by sincerely held religious beliefs will not be forced to provide directly insurance coverage that violates their consciences.

Since the verdict was announced, many have expressed the hope that renewed negotiation rather than further litigation could end the standoff. The court fight, after all, has produced collateral damage worth assessing. The Catholic Church is a natural supporter of efforts to achieve universal health care, but an egregious miscalculation within the Obama administration transformed many Catholics and the church’s leaders into political adversaries of the reform plan. The administration should have allowed from the beginning for a broader religious exemption to the mandate.

Though not a claimant to this decision, church entities have engaged in a parallel legal campaign to revoke the H.H.S. mandate altogether. But that willingness to join the courtroom fray, however just the cause, risks diminishing the church’s ability to engage in a mutually respectful dialogue with civil society, especially if we are perceived to be more interested in litigation than in evangelization.

The lawsuits currently in process will have to run their course, and it is probable that other legal battles may have to be initiated to protect religious liberty in the future. But such fights should be joined judiciously and with charity for all. Ultimately, the church needs people to know Christians by our love, not our lawyers.

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Matt Nannery
9 years 9 months ago
Are businesses people in the eyes of the editors? A question worth some reflection.
Patrick Robinson
9 years 8 months ago
".America [the magazine] has vigorously denounced government overstepping in this area while at the same time expressing concern that the church may have joined the public policy discussions in too great detail." Were the Jesuits in El Salvador, who were at the forefront of battling governmental oppression which denied the poor basic Christian rights to religious liberty, food and housing, guilty of joining "...the public policy discussion in too great detail?" Aren't religious liberty and the right to life also rudimentary Catholic values worthy of our unwavering, untimid defense? If so, why the editorial critique of other Catholic institutions [such as the University of Notre Dame, to name one] for their "...willingness to join the courtroom fray" which the editorial board feels "risks diminishing the church's ability to engage in a mutually respectfully dialogue with civil society..." We righly look to our Jesuits for moral leadership, not timid political correctness, on such fundamentals as religious liberty and the protection of life from the moment of conception.. One other point: Hobby Lobby had nothing to do with "every woman [having] unfettered access to all forms of birth control." There was no legal challenge to the governmental dictate that an employer pay for 16 of 20 government approved contraceptives for its employees. The challenge was to the dictate that 4 abortion inducing drugs be paid for.
Robert O'Connell
9 years 9 months ago
Noting that entities of our church were "not a claimant to this decision" makes clear that the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestage Wood, the Green family and Norman Hahn respectively, along with the services of the lawyers they used won this case, "not our lawyers." To some extent, we might also note that the Green and Hahn families were indisputably living out their religious principles -- and setting an example the rest of us might try harder to emulate.
Roy Van Brunt
9 years 9 months ago
Indeed it is the question. If corporations are people entitled to rights, then SCOTUS owes the American people an explanation of why GM has not currently been indicted on murder charges. The Court looks like buffoons on this one and erodes public confidence. Corporations, by their incorporation are afforded protections not available to persons. The fact that it's family incorporators have personal scruples is nice,...but irrelevant to the argument. Period.
Matt Nannery
9 years 9 months ago
It would have been enlightening to have been a fly on the wall when the intelligent, thoughtful, benevolent editors of America gathered around a conference table for the editorial board meeting at which they worked out the magazine's stance on the Hobby Lobby ruling. I'm sure it was not a quick meeting. What the editors ended up doing is referencing an umbrella category they call "private entities," under which they've placed individuals [actual people] religious institutions and businesses--a category under which all three sub groups are granted the rights of real people. Just for the record, the Catholic Church does not believe corporations are people though America has done some somersaults to justify the plausibility of giving them human rights.
Vincent Gaitley
9 years 9 months ago
Just for the record, no one believes that corporations are flesh and blood people, but they get treated in law as persons--that is, organized bodies. After all, corporations comprise shareholders but only act through their human agents. The Church is a corporation, too; indeed, Vatican City has taken its corporate personhood to a higher level of organized body, that of a State, however small.
9 years 9 months ago
Putting aside the question of whether Hobby Lobby is any different than Koch Industries, I am troubled that the Justices (male) concluded that there was a sincerely held religious belief involved since Hobby Lobby had contraceptive coverage for their employees before the ACA.
Michael Barberi
9 years 9 months ago
The larger issue overlooked by many in the Hobby Lobby decision is that some for-profit corporations can be exempt from the contraceptive mandate by the same accommodation that exist for certain religious non-profit corporations. This means that some for-profit and non-profit corporations don't have to cover or pay for contraceptive products and services the owners believe go against their religious beliefs. In other words, the employees of these exempt organizations will have access to free contraceptive services through their employer's insurance company or third party payor. In essence, taxpayers will be paying for contraceptive coverage for exempt organizations. This issue is far from over as the Wheaton College case makes clear. In this case, the Little Sisters of the Poor are contesting the requirement to sign a form requesting an exemption. This form then is used to provide employees access to contraceptive products and services at no cost through the insurance company or third party payor of the health plan of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Little Sisters of the Poor are arguing that the signing of the form makes them a "direct facilitator" to the potential use of contraceptive products and services they believe are immoral. If SCOTUS agrees with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the decision could undermine the so-called HHS accommodation that SCOTUS themselves said was a solution to Hobby Lobby's argument (and to the argument of religious non-profits) that they should be exempt from the contraceptive mandate on the grounds of religious beliefs. In essence, many of employees of for-profit and non-profit organizations that object to offering and paying for contraceptive coverage on religious grounds would have no access to contraceptive coverage at no cost. Stay tuned. Of course, there is another court case of importance, such as the one now to be decided by the Court of Appeals in W.D.C., where plaintiffs argue that the ACA only allows premium subsidies to be offered to eligible people that get their insurance plans through State-run exchanges (and not Federal exchanges). If upheld, that decision would destroy the ACA.

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