Affordable Care Act and Birth Control: Can Corporations Assert Religious Rights?

By Richey, Warren | The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

Affordable Care Act and Birth Control: Can Corporations Assert Religious Rights?


Richey, Warren, The Christian Science Monitor


President Obama's Affordable Care Act comes under close scrutiny at the US Supreme Court on Tuesday, with the justices poised to examine whether the measure violates the religious rights of company owners who object to being forced by the government to pay for certain birth control methods that offend their religious beliefs.

The high court is set to hear two consolidated cases in which business owners are seeking a religious exemption from the ACA's requirement that large employers provide their workers cost-free contraceptives.

The Obama administration has granted a complete exemption to churches and other houses of worship. And it has offered a special accommodation to non-profit religious-affiliated groups - including those organized as corporations.

But government lawyers insist that for-profit corporations are not entitled to exercise religious rights and must comply with the full terms of the ACA's contraception mandate.

The case is a potential landmark. It is perhaps the most important test of the scope of religious rights in America in a generation.

At issue is the government's power to deny a religious exemption when sincerely-held religious beliefs clash with a legislative mandate that violates those religious beliefs.

The dispute is set for 90 minutes of oral argument and will feature two of the same lawyers who faced off in the 2012 high court challenge to the health care reform law - US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who is again defending the law, and former Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, who is challenging the contraception mandate.

The issue arises at a time of bitter national debate and mounting litigation over a range of social issues that divide liberals and conservatives, including birth control, gay rights, and same-sex marriage.

Critics accuse the Obama administration of waging a war on religion and religious liberty. Supporters say the administration is seeking to prevent "religious" individuals from imposing their views on others and using religion as a license to discriminate.

The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that constitutional claims to religious freedom must yield in the face of generally applicable laws.

That case involved a request by native-Americans for an exemption from drug laws that would permit sacramental use of peyote in their religious gatherings.

The high court upheld the drug laws and denied the exemption in a landmark decision that substantially narrowed the scope of religious liberty in the US.

The decision sparked a national outcry by religious organizations - and triggered extreme alarm among minority sects whose religious views are often attacked, denounced, and ridiculed by others.

Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law seeks to empower individuals to challenge government provisions that impose a substantial burden on adherence to religious faith.

The law is designed to encourage the government to find an accommodation that allows the government to pursue its program but with minimal disruption to religious beliefs.

RFRA establishes a three-prong analysis. First the government's action must cause a "substantial burden" on religious practice. Second, the government must demonstrate that it has a compelling interest in advancing its program. Third, the government must show that its program is the least restrictive way to reach its goal.

In the current case at the high court, the business owners sued the federal government under RFRA to force the Obama administration to recognize and respect their religious beliefs.

"The government does not dispute that these are sincere religious beliefs or that they deserve protection," writes S. Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in his brief on behalf of one of the business owners.

"Yet, the mandate compels [religious business owners] to do precisely what their religion prohibits or face draconian consequences - including millions in fines, private lawsuits, and government enforcement actions," he says. …

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