By now nearly everyone has heard about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby verdict. Facebook and Twitter have been abuzz about it.
In a five to four decision, the court ruled that private for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In this particular case Hobby Lobby is not required to provide certain contraceptives mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
It’s a landmark decision.
However, the one I’ve been watching more closely is the case filed by EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), a Catholic-based television network founded in 1981 in Irondale, Alabama by the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.
Soon after the Hobby Lobby verdict, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of EWTN, granting them an immediate injunction against the HHS mandate to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their insurance program.
My interest is simple. EWTN is an explicitly Christian organization, but is not technically a church.
The Director of HHS, on orders from President Obama, mandated that a wide-range of contraceptives be covered by employer-funded insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Religious organizations like EWTN were not given an exemption.
EWTN is an explicitly Catholic organization. Catholic doctrine considers all contraceptives to be sinful, since in their view contraceptives extinguish the potential of human life. According to Catholic doctrine, to provide contraceptives is to cooperate with evil.
When EWTN and other such organizations requested relief from this requirement, the Obama administration balked.
Finally, after a great deal of public pressure, the administration conceded that the requirement to provide contraceptives could be pushed back from the employer to the overall insurance-provider, but the employer still had to fund it.
EWTN found this concession unacceptable. Since EWTN is self-insured, they would still be funding a practice which they found to be immoral, unethical, and a grave sin. They would be complicit with evil. So, they filed suit.
At stake is a simple issue: What are the limits of government infringing upon religious freedom?
Certainly, there are legitimate reasons for the government to do so. But what are the limits? Particularly when dealing with explicitly religious organizations.
Churches and other places of worship often get automatic exemptions from mandates like the one HHS handed down. So, no Catholic church was required to comply with this mandate.
However, EWTN is not technically a church (house of worship). They televise religious programming, which may include church worship services. But, they are not themselves a church. So, this exemption did not apply to them.
Nor does it apply to hospitals, food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or any number of other religious charities. All of these are required to comply with the HHS mandate.
The question is: Should they? Should an explicitly religious organization that is not technically a church be forced to comply with government rules that are in direct opposition to their stated religious beliefs?
The answer that the Obama administration gave was ‘yes.’
On June 30, 2014, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said ‘no.’ Citing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, the three judges for the circuit court granted EWTN an immediate injunction pending appeal.
Two of the three judges chose not to comment on the decision. Judge William Pryor provided a 27-page explanation of his opinion.
In part he writes:
It is neither our duty nor the duty of the United States to tell the Network that its undisputed belief is flawed … The Supreme Court has instructed that “it is not for us to say that the line [drawn by the religious believer] was an unreasonable one. Courts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs …”
The United States flouts that instruction by treating an undisputed religious belief as a disputed question of law. But “it is not for us to say that [the Network’s] religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.”
We must instead “determine whether the line drawn [by the Network] reflects an honest conviction, and there is no dispute that it does.”
In other words, it is not the Obama administration’s job to decide if the Catholic Church is right or wrong in its views on contraception, abortion, or any other moral/ethical issue.
Rather, it is their job to determine if it is a sincerely held view and then respect it. Even if the religious organization in question is not technically a church or house of worship.
If this ruling holds up – and given the recent Hobby Lobby case, there is every reason to think it will – then I find this a very encouraging development for religious freedom.
The government in general is becoming less and less deferential to Christian churches. As Christendom passes away, our place in the culture is less guaranteed.
In the past, many of these safeguards were assumed. Now, they are not. We need them written down and implemented as law.
This court ruling feels like one very important piece of that safeguarding of our religious freedom.