Quantcast

Religious freedom is an important, fundamental constitutional right

By Sen. Orrin Hatch

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

The dome of the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong, Getty Images

The latest Obamacare mandate shows how far this administration will reach and the collateral damage it is willing to inflict in trying to take over the health care system. Nothing, not even the Constitution and the first freedom it grants all Americans, will stand in the way.

Late last year, the Department of Health and Human Services ordered all employers to cover in their employee insurance plans "preventive services" such as sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs and devices. This would force many religious hospitals, universities and charitable organizations to either violate their religious beliefs by complying or face the consequences.

The First Amendment doubly protects religious liberty by both prohibiting a government establishment of religion and safeguarding the free exercise of religion, the first individual right listed in the Bill of Rights. That's how important religious liberty is to America. And in our system of government, such fundamental rights and principles are supposed to trump statutes, regulations and political agendas.

The Obama administration has turned those priorities upside down. Instead of conforming their political agenda to the Constitution, they distort the Constitution to conform to their political agenda.

The administration's backpedaling won't fool anyone. They tried, for example, to minimize this mandate's impact by arguing that many states already require contraception coverage. That may be, but this controversy is about religious liberty, not contraception, and nearly all of those states have much broader religious protections.

The administration also claimed that this mandate does not cover churches or houses of worship. Thankfully, the First Amendment is not written so narrowly. Thousands of religious organizations, schools, hospitals and charities serve millions of this nation's most vulnerable people. These institutions may not fit the Obama administration's definition of a church, but they just as fully exercise their faith and religious mission. And they just as fully claim the protection of the First Amendment.

When this simmering controversy broke a few weeks ago, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius thought she could make it all go away by agreeing not to impose the mandate for another year. She did not, of course, say that the administration would use this time to accommodate religious liberty. She apparently thought that Americans would be more willing to lose this liberty if they could just spend a little extra time with it. The Obama administration's attitude toward religious liberty seems to be this: Enjoy it while it lasts.

Religious liberty is not a piece of optional equipment like premium floor mats or upgraded appliances. It is not simply a means to a political end, to be sliced and diced and doled out in pieces to interest groups at the government's discretion. Religious liberty is a fundamental constitutional right to which the government must yield.

The new mandate announced on Feb. 10 violates religious liberty in exactly the same way. Under the new version, employers must still provide their employees access to insurance coverage for these objectionable products and services. That access would come indirectly to the employee from the insurance company rather than directly through the employer's policy. Second verse, same as the first.

Only two decades ago, a threat to religious liberty from the Supreme Court brought together people of all faiths, political parties and ideologies behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As the primary Republican co-sponsor of RFRA, I remember how these unprecedented grassroots and congressional coalitions insisted that rights such as religious liberty rise and fall together. We need that same unity today because religious liberty is just as important and, sadly just as threatened, as it was in the past.

Just last month the Supreme Court held that the right of religious organizations to decide who may further their religious mission trumps non-discrimination statutes. The Obama administration actually argued that religious organizations are really nothing special, that they should have no more freedom from federal control than, say, a labor union or a social club. Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts called this a remarkable view of religious liberty, one that is "hard to square with the text of First Amendment itself, which gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations."

Most Americans still believe that. I know that Utahns certainly do. We have a history that only magnifies the precious right of religious liberty. We must stand together to defend that right today.

Orrin Hatch is a U.S. senator from Utah.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS