Politics, Religious Freedom/Conscience Rights, Right to Life

Religious Freedom and Conscience Rights

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor. You will see many websites and news organizations focused very narrowly on what this means for women seeking contraceptive coverage in their health care plans. But the issue is broader than just the ACA/ObamaCare requirement for contraceptive coverage. What is at issue is conscience rights–the ability of individuals as well as entities  to be protected from violating their moral or religious beliefs.

From the majority decision written by Justice Thomas:

We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption. We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the cases for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Note that the Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to review in light of “further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” The decision was based on the narrow ruling that the governmental departments involved in creating an exemption had the right to do so for the entities objecting to ObamaCare provisions that violated moral, religious or conscience rights.

However, as Justice Alito noted,

We now send these cases back to the lower courts, where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey are all but certain to pursue their argument that the current rule is flawed on yet another ground, namely, that it is arbitrary and capricious and thus violates the APA. This will prolong the legal battle in which the Little Sisters have now been engaged for seven years—even though during all this time no employee of the Little Sisters has come forward with an objection to the Little Sisters’ conduct. I understand the Court’s desire to decide no more than is strictly necessary, but under the circumstances here, I would decide one additional question: whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) does not compel the religious exemption granted by the current rule. If RFRA requires this exemption, the Departments did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner in granting it.

The whole point of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was to prevent the government from running roughshod over First Amendment rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. These rights are so fundamental, they are written in the First Amendment because they are–and have been–a priority for our government from its founding.

Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket Fund which defended the Little Sisters of the Poor, said,  “America deserves better than petty governments harassing nuns. The Court did the right thing by protecting the Little Sisters from an unnecessary mandate that would have gutted their ministry.”