Exercise Freely All You Like, But Bearing False Witness Does Not Count As Free Exercise Of Religion

Re-reading my January 2 post on “Free Exercise,” I wondered if I should adjust my spectacles more toward the fine details or the bigger picture.

First, into the weeds: on Friday, January 3, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli presented the U.S. government’s response to Justice Sotomayor’s temporary injunction against enforcement of the contraceptive mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act in the case brought by Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver (by their legal team at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty).  When you get down to details, as Verrilli pointed out, accepting the nuns’ objection to filling out form EBSA 700 leads to absurd results (hat tip once again to Marty Lederman of Balkinization.)  Signing the form in their particular case would ensure that their female employees do not receive contraceptive coverage, in part because their health insurer, Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, prefers not to provide it and is not subject to any government regulation under provisions of the ERISA law of 1974 exempting churches.  Obamacare regulations also give the Little Sisters a simple way out of any possible taint, again because the Christian Brothers entity is considered a church group, not merely a religious nonprofit.  (I can see an objection to the clericalist bias of the federal regulations, but that is a separate issue.)  So the Little Sisters and their lawyers are refusing to take yes for an answer.  Moreover, as Verrilli notes, they “draw flawed analogies when they say that under the court of appeals’ reasoning [which went against the Little Sisters’ position] ‘Quaker conscientious objectors would suffer no penalties if they would just join the military; Jewish prisoners would suffer no burden if they would just eat the pork…’  To mirror the situation here, the question in all of these cases would be whether the religious objector could be required to sign a certification form in order to secure the religion-based exemption he sought…. [the Little Sisters/Becket Fund position] would seemingly mean that the…Jewish prisoner could not be required to fill out a form saying he had a religious objection to the consumption of pork before he was provided an alternative meal… When extending religious accommodations, the government must be allowed to provide for regularized, orderly means of permitting eligible individuals or entities to declare that they intend to take advantage of them.”

Amen.  Anybody who has a problem with that is just itching for a lost cause to fight.  The Notre Dame case and other similar cases are different in detail, but not in kind, in my opinion, as I discussed the other day.  And when Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund argued on EWTN’s “The World Over” TV show the other day that the Little Sisters were being coerced to sign a “permission slip” for their insurer or administrator to provide birth control coverage, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter rightly called him out for bearing false witness against the truth.

And what about the bigger picture?  I still do not wish to seem rude to the Little Sisters of the Poor or Notre Dame, but a distinction should be made between the official position of the Roman Catholic Church and the lives of an overwhelming majority of American Catholic women–98% or so of whom have used contraceptives, obviously not continuously, but at some point.  That number tracks comparably with the general population of American women.  Morality and righteousness may not always lie in numbers, but it is relevant that many if not most American Catholics, including theologians and even clerics, are dubious about the rationale of the papal encyclical from the 1960s against contraception.  Government policy on abortion is obviously strongly contested, but the Supreme Court’s Griswold decision legitimizing birth control is pretty unlikely to be overturned.  Public health policy is, or ought to be, nonsectarian and detached from particular creeds and confessions.  The health law is a neutral law of general applicability, which was the test the Supreme Court used in a 1990 free exercise case involving peyote rituals, the upshot of which was that states may but do not have to accommodate claims of religiously-based exemption from such neutral laws.  Nobody is force-feeding birth control pills to anybody, least of all the Little Sisters of the Poor. The cases against the contraceptive mandate, as revised by the Obama administration, are essentially aimed, seems to me, at reasserting control over (especially poorer) women’s access to birth control, with the usually unstated aim (depending on the audience) of restricting female autonomy more generally.  Does the free exercise of religious belief really depend on that?  Any lawyer, or woman religious for that matter, who has thought it through and still says “yes” should have their knuckles rapped.


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