A for-profit publishing corporation won an injunction against the Obama administration’s implementation of the president’s health reform law, which could prove the basis for the next challenge to the law to arrive before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Reggie Walton, of the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, granted the injunction on Nov. 16 on religious liberty grounds, effectively delaying a policy forcing a Bible publisher to provide its employees with insurance coverage for several types of contraceptives. Beginning in October 2012, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandated that all employers provide contraceptive, abortifacient, and sterilization coverage without copays through the authority to define essential benefits granted to HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius under President Obama’s health care law.
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. of Carol Stream, Illinois sued Sebelius to avoid violating its religious beliefs against the use of abortifacients. According to Dominique Ludvigson, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Judge Walton ruled in favor of a preliminary injunction until Tyndale’s claims could be adjudicated more fully.
“With the HHS mandate, the administration is saying it has the authority to conscript objecting religious employers to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization in violation of the core tenets of their faith, under threat of severe financial penalties,” Ludvigson said. “This unprecedented and unconstitutional attack on religious freedom is just the first of other liberty-crushing mandates that could potentially flow from Obamacare once it is fully implemented.”
Secular Organizations Rejected
Other plaintiffs, such as Texas-based Hobby Lobby, a craft services chain, have been unable to receive injunctions due to rulings that their companies are inherently secular. Judge Walton noted in his ruling that for-profit Tyndale maintained a Christian corporate culture, noting its primary ownership is a nonprofit religious foundation.
“The Court has no reason to doubt, moreover, that Tyndale’s religious objection to providing insurance coverage for certain contraceptives reflects the beliefs of Tyndale’s owners,” Walton wrote. “Nor is there any dispute that Tyndale’s primary owner, the Foundation, can ‘exercise religion’ in its own right, given that it is a nonprofit religious organization; indeed, the case law is replete with examples of such organizations asserting cognizable free exercise and RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] challenges.”
Courts try to discern whether people are just trying to skirt the law, notes Sharee Langenstein, the Eagle Forum’s National Issues Chairman for Religious Liberty.
“The courts look to see if there is an official dogma, or if the legal complaint concerns a bona fide tenet of their religion,” Langenstein said. “We’ve looked at that in prison cases in the past. Inmates will say, ‘I need to be provided this in prison, so that I can practice my religion.’ And then they’ll ask, ‘Well, what religion? Is this something you made up, or is this a religion that a lot of people practice that has some generally accepted system of belief?’ So there are slightly more objective tests to tell whether something is a religious belief or just a preference.”
Very Limited Exemptions
Ludvigson says the religious exemptions offered to nonprofits currently depend on the opinions of HHS leadership—exemptions which do not extend to for-profit organizations.
“The limited religious exemption currently in the mandate does not adequately accommodate fundamental First Amendment freedoms,” Ludvigson said. “Houses of worship are exempt, but the vast majority of religious nonprofit organizations, hospitals and schools of higher education are not unless their purpose is to inculcate religious values and they only employ or serve members of their own faith.”
Ludvigson noted nonprofit organizations which don’t qualify for the exemption have been given an additional year to comply with the mandate.
“For-profit companies [such as Tyndale] currently have no exemption under the mandate’s scheme,” Ludvigson said. “Obamacare is a threat to freedom, generally, because it broadly concentrates power in the hands of the federal government and its bureaucrats—a drastic and dangerous experiment. Religious freedom is one of its first casualties.”
According to Ludvigson, the administration is essentially claiming freedom of conscience is not worthy of protection unless expressed within a strictly religious institution.
“The administration has argued that company owners forfeit their right to religious liberty as soon as they try to earn a living by running a corporation,” Ludvigson said. “Under that logic, the government could require kosher delis or halal butchers to forgo their most deeply held religious convictions to stay in business.”
‘Everyone . . . Should Be Outraged’
According to Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented Tyndale in the lawsuit, this case has broad implications.
“The defense of religious liberty reinforces the defense of liberty in general. If the federal government can encroach into the lives of citizens just because they are trying to earn a living for their families, even in violation of the most paramount of liberties like freedom of religion, that same government will be able to trample upon every kind of freedom Americans hold dear,” Bowman said. “For forty years federal health laws have garnered broad bipartisan support to protect both religious and moral objections. ObamaCare represents a vast expansion and unprecedented threat to conscience protection in America.”
Langenstein says objections based on religious liberty deserve a response regardless of the plaintiff’s beliefs. She says the matter is a constitutional one, likely to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is an assault not just on religious organizations,” said Langenstein, “but on everyone. It isn’t about being a Catholic or being a Christian. It’s about the Constitution. It doesn’t matter what your personal belief is, everyone in the country should be outraged that the Constitution is being violated in this way.”