False choice between Affordable Care Act and religious liberty

A federal judge temporarily rules that the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") infringes on the religious freedom of a company's owners who oppose paying for the birth control of their workers. Such suits would disappear if Congress simply provided universal health care in noncoercive ways.

Ellen M. Blalock/The Post-Standard/AP Photo
Protesters gather in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, N.Y., June 21, to make a statement against the Roman Catholic bishops' position on President Obama's health-care plan. The church believes the provision on birth control violates religious freedom. Inside the church, 400 parishioners celebrated a mass tied to the message of religious freedom.

As President Obama might say, it’s a false choice if Americans must choose between health care and the free exercise of their religion. But that choice seems to be the issue in the latest court suit over the Affordable Care Act.

A federal court ruled Friday that the act’s birth-control mandate should not apply, at least for now, on a family-run company in Colorado that has long sought to “spiritually” nurture its several hundred workers based on the family’s religious views.

The owners of Hercules Industries convinced Judge John Kane that their religious freedom would be in jeopardy if they were forced to provide employee insurance that includes contraception, sterilization, and some abortifacient drugs.

The heart of the legal case is whether the government has a compelling interest in mandating birth-control coverage to the point that it overrides the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That 1993 law requires the government to give preference to the rights of religious people or groups in its actions.

The judge found enough evidence that the Hercules owners would “suffer imminent irreparable harm” to their practice of religion under the health-care act. He temporarily blocked the act’s implementation – but only for Hercules – until the court can hear full arguments on the merits of the case.

His injunction opens the door for other companies and individuals to seek similar court protection from the health-care law’s imposition on religious actions. Courts may ultimately decide that the law also violates the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and not simply the 1993 law.

The case, known as Newland v. Sebelius, is somewhat parallel to other recent suits filed by religious groups that seek an exemption from the birth-control mandate. But in this latest case the plaintiffs are not a religious group but simply individual owners of a company applying their religious views in the workplace.

The question of compulsion and rights was also at the heart of the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the act’s mandate on individuals to buy health insurance. The court ruled that the act cannot penalize someone for failing to buy insurance but it can tax them instead as an incentive to so do.

Judge Kane hinted that the apparent clash between health-care policy and religious freedom could be avoided if the government simply came up with other ways to provide birth-control services to women who can’t afford them. And indeed, he pointed out that the act already provides exemptions to the mandate, such as for certain religious groups that have an existing health-care system for themselves.

Such exemptions suggest the government’s interest in forcing coverage of birth control is not a compelling one. And indeed, alternative means of achieving universal health care – including help for women who can’t afford birth control – are available. Congress or individual states can offer direct funding, for example, or companies and individuals can be given a range of choices in health care short of federal coercion on religious rights.

Such court suits would disappear with more freedom of choice in health care. Either the courts or the November elections might push Washington in that direction. Or Republicans and Democrats in Congress might decide to work together now to ensure religious liberty is preserved even with greater access to health care.

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