Supreme Court

Priests for Life vs. ObamaCare: Courts should judge laws, not religious beliefs

FILE -- March 7, 2011: A detail of the West Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington.

FILE -- March 7, 2011: A detail of the West Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington.  (AP2011)

On Wednesday, November 18, Priests for Life  -- the largest pro-life ministry in the Catholic Church -- is holding a press conference at the National Press Club regarding the case Priests for Life vs. HHS, which the Supreme Court has accepted along with six other similar cases (Little Sisters of the Poor, Archdiocese of Washington, Diocese of Pittsburgh, E. Texas Baptist University, Southern Nazarene University, and Geneva College).

The cases challenge the HHS mandate, which tries to force groups like ours to cover abortion-inducing drugs, and other 'services' we find morally objectionable, in the health insurance coverage we offer our employees.

The press conference will attempt to explain as plainly and simply as possible to the public what is at issue here, and what the arguments are on each side. Among those speaking at the press conference will be the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Alveda King, fulltime Director of African-American Outreach for Priests for Life, is named as an individual plaintiff in the organization's case.

What makes the case hard to understand for many is that the government has in fact offered all of us plaintiffs an opportunity to opt-out of the obligation to provide insurance coverage for these objectionable services. All we need to do is to fill out a form -- or write a letter -- and we are, according to the government, "off the hook."

Our objection is that employment with Priests for Life still becomes the gateway through which our employees would have access to the objectionable coverage. It's not simply about payment; it's about involvement in the process.

What, then, are we objecting to?

We are saying that not only does it violate our faith to offer the objectionable insurance coverage, but it also violates our faith to even fill out that form or write that letter. Why? Because according to our sincerely held religious and moral beliefs, even those actions make us, in a moral sense, a part of the process by which the objectionable coverage will be offered to our employees anyway, once the government and the insurance provider see we've filled out the form. And our religion does not allow that kind of cooperation or involvement.

Put simply, filling out this form is a necessary part of the process by which the Obama administration is expanding coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives. Were it not part of the process, the government wouldn't require us to fill it out. And we don't want to be any part of the process at all. Our message to the government is, If you want to provide these services to which we object, you're going to have to do it without us.

Some people may think these beliefs are ridiculous, overly scrupulous, and unreasonable. Others, including the judges who ruled against us in the lower courts, claim we have misunderstood and misrepresented how these government regulations operate, and that we are not, in fact, 'part of the process' to which we object morally -- and therefore, that the government has already done all it needs to do to accommodate our religious freedom.

But here's the point: the role of a judge is to make judgments about the law, not about religious beliefs. It is beyond the authority of the courts to tell Priests for Life whether its beliefs are accurate or reasonable or overly scrupulous.

People are free to think that they are. But people are also free to think that something we say is inaccurate or unreasonable. Yet the courts still have to protect our freedom of speech, even in those instances. So too must the courts protect our freedom to believe, and practice a belief, that some find unreasonable.

Whenever the government punishes a believer for practicing some aspect of his faith, that is a substantial burden on religious freedom. In this case, we would face tremendous fines for not following the dictates of the HHS mandate. A nation that says, "Violate your faith or pay a price" is not protecting religious freedom. And in fact, federal law, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), protects that freedom and prohibits that kind of punishment.

Now the government will claim in this case that expanding access to abortion and contraception is so important a goal (in legal terms, a 'compelling interest') that it justifies restricting our religious freedom in this instance. But RFRA says that even if the government's interest is compelling, it can only substantially burden our religious freedom if it uses the least restrictive means to do so.

And we say that the government does have, and therefore must use, less restrictive means to give our employees the insurance coverage for services to which we object. Why do you have to have us involved in the process at all? By filling out this form, we are notifying our insurance provider that they need to take additional measures to cover our employees for abortion and contraception. Our moral convictions do not allow us to do that. We want no part in it.

Can't the government arrange for the employee who wants the additional coverage to let the government know that, independent of any action of the employer? That would be far less restrictive of our religious freedom -- and in fact, would not restrict it at all.

Notice that this is not about paying for the coverage. Our objection is that employment with Priests for Life still becomes the gateway through which our employees would have access to the objectionable coverage. It's not simply about payment; it's about involvement in the process.

Also, this is not about objecting to what someone else -- whether the government or the insurance provider or the employee -- is going to do. Some court decisions have misrepresented this point. Our objection is not about what someone else is required to do or may do; it is about what we, the employers who have sincerely held religious beliefs, are required to do here and now.

And this is not about imposing our religious and moral beliefs on our employees. It is about being prevented, as employers, from living out our own religious beliefs and conducting our business affairs according to our own moral convictions.

Nobody is forced to work for Priests for Life or any of the other plaintiffs. Moreover, if they choose to utilize these objectionable services, they are not deprived of any employment benefits. As it stands in fact, though, all of our employees are completely in agreement with this lawsuit, and have applauded it ever since it was first filed three and a half years ago.

I am delighted that Priests for Life is in the Supreme Court, but saddened that we need to be.

I know we are on the right side of these arguments, and I believe we will win this case.

Father Frank Pavone is National Director of Priests for Life and Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. He is president of the National Pro-life Religious Council and Pastoral Director for Rachel's Vineyard, the world's largest ministry of healing after abortion. He travels throughout the country, to an average of four states every week, preaching and teaching against abortion.