February 19, 2016

Why Obamacare’s contraception mandate hurts minority religions (COMMENTARY)

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Satmar Hasidic Jews attend a mass gathering in the Brooklyn borough of New York on December 3, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Darren Ornitz
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PAVONE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Feb. 19, 2016.

Satmar Hasidic Jews attend a mass gathering in the Brooklyn borough of New York on December 3, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Darren Ornitz *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-PAVONE-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Feb. 19, 2016.

(RNS) If the now eight-member Supreme Court sticks to its schedule and hears oral arguments on March 23 in the lawsuit that Priests for Life (and six other consolidated cases) have brought against the Obama administration’s HHS mandate, media reports may lead you to believe that only devout Catholics and evangelicals are involved in a matter that concerns health insurance and contraception.

If so, they will have overlooked Orthodox Jewish rabbis, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

As evidenced by friend-of-the-court briefs filed in our case, a rich diversity of faith traditions across America understand that what is at stake in the government’s action is literally the freedom to practice one’s religion — whatever that religion may be.


RELATED STORY: Here’s why the Little Sisters will lose (COMMENTARY)


More than four years ago, Priests for Life filed a cause of action challenging the Obama administration’s edict that religiously based nonprofit groups must provide their employees with insurance coverage for drugs, devices, and counseling that many faiths teach are intrinsically wrong. Some of those mandated drugs and devices induce abortions.

The case now focuses not so much on our belief that these practices are wrong, or on our objection to covering them, but on a less well understood aspect of our faith that objects to the very mechanism by which the Obama administration requires us to use to opt-out of that coverage.

In effect, this means that the government can tell us what beliefs we can and cannot practice without punishment.

This argument is particularly dangerous for religions whose beliefs are not widely known.

Orthodox Jewish rabbis point out in their brief filed with the Supreme Court that their branch of Judaism has about 670,000 adherents in the United States. With so few followers, they note that their religious requirements “are unfamiliar to most Americans, including many Jews belonging to other denominations.” If the government, as the Obama administration proffers, is allowed to judge what religious beliefs are important or even valid, Orthodox Jews would particularly be at risk because of this unfamiliarity and lack of understanding.


RELATED STORY: Catholic bishops, Becket Fund slam newest HHS contraception mandate rules


The rabbis cite a recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judge who, when trying to find an example of an activity that no one would find objectionable, said turning on a light switch every day would not substantially burden anyone’s religious exercise. The rabbis note, however, that this judge happened to pick an example that constitutes a grave sin for Orthodox Jews, who hold that turning on a light switch on the Sabbath violates a prohibition against kindling fires on the Sabbath.

That judge’s apparent ignorance of Orthodox Jewish doctrines belies the proposition that the government is equipped, much less empowered, to judge religious tenets.

And therein lies one of the problems with the administration’s mandate. If the government — be it the executive, legislative, or judicial branch — is allowed to determine the veracity of religious doctrines familiar to most everyone, what will happen to Americans whose beliefs are less known or understood? A brief filed by the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, and Lipan Apache Pastor Robert Soto expresses this very real concern.

These groups and individuals note that they “do not necessarily share the specific religious convictions at the heart of (Priests for Life’s and others’) case,” but they are deeply worried that the administration’s stance will “disadvantage minority religions unfamiliar to the typical judge or government official.” The administration, they point out, wants to pick and choose which religious institutions it will burden.

Under the HHS mandate, if an entity is deemed sufficiently religious, such as a house of worship, it will escape the government’s dictates. If an entity is held not sufficiently religious, such as Priests for Life, Little Sisters of the Poor, or any number of faith-based schools, homeless shelters, and other charities represented in our consolidated case, the heavy hand of the Obama administration will force compliance or force destruction through crippling fines. The danger of the government making such determinations against those who hold minority or unpopular beliefs is obvious.

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director, Priests for Life. RNS file photo by David Gibson

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director, Priests for Life. RNS file photo by David Gibson

This selective enforcement of the HHS mandate is fraught with peril for non-majoritarian religions not only because of their lack of status and influence, but also, again, because of their unfamiliarity. For example, a brief filed by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs points out that “Jewish religious law (Halachah) accords primacy to a house of study (Beit Midrash) over a synagogue (Beit Knesset).” The HHS mandate, however, does the reverse. It regards houses of worship as more central to a religion than the church auxiliaries that put faith in motion.

What the Obama administration is proposing is not a minor regulation, but a sea change in America’s protection of religious freedom. As the legal brief filed by Orthodox Jewish Rabbis so eloquently states,

“Orthodox Jews have long felt at home in America because its robust protections for religious liberty have never discriminated against minority practices. A rule requiring judges to adjudicate questions of religious doctrine is incompatible with this admirable history, risks limiting the guarantee of religious liberty only to the most well-known and well-accepted religious practices, and threatens to make America a less tolerant and welcoming nation.”

The seven consolidated cases the Supreme Court is now hearing against the Obama administration’s HHS mandate are not a Catholic or an Evangelical cause; they’re an American cause.

(The Rev. Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life)

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  • Religious people appear to be the least interested people in finding truthfulness.

  • Gerald

    Religious persecution in the United States today stands for two things: That abhorrent concept that the religious shouldn’t be exempt from the laws of the land and being religious is a valid excuse for treating others poorly.

  • yoh

    I am inclined to agree. The entire article is bovine scatology. At no point does religious freedom include a right to make decisions for others or to compel others to abide by your beliefs. Under the amendments to the ACA, employers don’t have any hand in the employee’s choice to have insurance coverage for contraception. The employees choose their own insurer outside of the employer to do so. But allowing employees to make their own decisions is not enough for people like Rev. Pavone. This is not an issue of allegedly employers not choosing to provide contraception, its about forcing employees to live in accordance with their employer’s religious beliefs. Nothing about that has anything to do with liberties.

    Pavone as you may recall is under fire from the church heirarchy for financial improprieties involving his anti-abortion group Nothing like an embezzler trying to lecture others on moral concepts.

  • samuel johnston

    Since when does this priest give a fig about minority religious rights? His organization has been devoted to their supression for all these centuries! Obviously, he wants to claim common cause with more sympathetic figures than himself (poor, opressed minorities). He advocates denying employees of his organization the standard medical coverage offered by the government, precisely because he does not want to allow his employees to have the freedon to make their own moral/religious choices. Will he be available to deal with the suffering deformed life of those whom he insistes that others bear and take responsibility for? He has not and he will not! He wants others to suffer for HIS purity of conviction! What an evil, selfish man!

  • samuel johnston

    Since when does this priest give a fig about minority religious rights? His organization has been devoted to their supression for all these centuries! Obviously, he wants to claim common cause with more sympathetic figures than himself (poor, opressed minorities). He advocates denying employees of his organization the standard medical coverage offered by the government, precisely because he does not want to allow his employees to have the freedon to make their own moral/religious choices. Will he be available to deal with the suffering deformed life of those whom he insistes that others bear and take responsibility for? He has not and he will not! He wants others to suffer for HIS purity of conviction. What an evil, selfish man!

  • Ben inoakland

    It takes a religious person to come up with the idea that turning on to light switch is the same thing as kindling a fire. sympathetic Magic.

  • samuel johnston

    Yoh,
    I agree 100%. He is not in favor of freedom for others, just those who agree with him.

  • yoh

    Here is a story about how forcing others to abide by the religious dictates of institutional leadership is actively trying to kill women through medical malpractice.

    ‘Report Says Catholic Hospitals Are Putting Women’s Lives in Danger Due to Religious Directives”
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2016/02/20/report-says-catholic-hospitals-are-putting-womens-lives-in-danger-due-to-religious-directives/?repeat=w3tc

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  • Tracy

    Can the rabbis stop the goyim who work for them from turning on the lights in their own homes? Can the Catholic church require its employees to eat fish on Fridays?

    Then neither should they be allowed to restrict their employees from access to the medical care they choose.

  • Roger

    The policy doesn’t require anyone to use contraceptives, explicitly religious organizations are exempt in the first place, and quasi-religious organizations may receive an exemption upon request. And, just to be clear, the contraception mandate is very good for minorities (and the majority), even if minority RELIGIONS don’t care for it.

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