Obamacare Versus the First Amendment

Obamacare's contraception mandate threatens the free exercise of religion .

By + More

Lost for some people amid worries about National Security Agency surveillance practices, Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative organizations and Department of Justice investigations of journalists who dared to speak to government employees is another troubling example of inappropriate federal overreach – the Health and Human Services contraception mandate.

That mandate requires private organizations to provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization procedures to their female employees, free of charge, even if doing so violates the deeply held religious beliefs of the organization. It is an egregious transgression against religious freedom.

To save face, the administration carved out a narrow exception for purely religious organizations like churches and synagogues. Uncovered by the exception are hospitals, charities, schools, colleges and businesses run by religious organizations or individuals. The requirement, which tells American citizens to violate their beliefs or pay millions of dollars in fines to the federal government, went into effect for non-religious organizations last August. Religious groups were given a year's grace period to figure out how best to violate their consciences.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

The organizations were understandably not appeased. A number of them are taking the government to court: in Colorado last month, a panel of federal judges heard arguments from Hobby Lobby, a famously Christian-run retailer that has already promised not to comply with the mandate. The state of Oklahoma has come out in support of the store chain's right not to be forced to go against its beliefs. Other groups are reluctantly exploring whether to cease providing health insurance to their employees at all so as not to be forced to participate in the purchasing of drugs they find morally objectionable. And at least one order of Catholic nuns has disclosed that the mandate could leave it with no alternative but to leave the United States altogether.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is a religious congregation that cares for the impoverished elderly through its operation of 30 homes for low-income seniors in this country. The sisters all take vows of poverty; they live to serve the residents of their homes. Money is tight. Operating expenses are not low for organizations that feed, house and provide medical care for more than 2,500 aged Americans. The sisters must travel around, literally begging for donations from churches and businesses to help them stay afloat. A representative of the organization told the Daily Caller in December that the mandate "could be a serious threat to our mission in the U.S. because we would never be able to afford to pay the fines involved. We have difficulty making ends meet just on a regular basis; we have no extra funding that would cover these fines."

The moratorium offered to religious groups is now drawing to a close. The mandate goes into effect for them in August, meaning that in six weeks, these organizations will be faced with the choice to begin providing insurance that pays the full cost of drugs and procedures they see as deeply morally objectionable – or be fined into submission by the federal government.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: should Catholic and other religious institutions have to cover birth control?]

The decision by "rogue" IRS agents to target the tax-exempt status of groups whose politics they found distasteful was roundly condemned even by people who disagree with the political aims of the groups in question. Likewise, we should all be disturbed by this attempt to coerce religious people and organizations into violating their beliefs. It shows a total disrespect for the First Amendment to our Constitution, which prohibits laws that impede the free exercise of religion.

More importantly, it sets a precedent that government has the authority to "decide" which values and tenets of a religion are legitimate and which are not. Viewed alongside this administration's conviction that it has the right to track our phone calls whenever it likes, this development points to a frightening pattern of continual, pervasive and unapologetic government overreach.

If that's not Orwellian, it's hard to imagine what is.

  • Read Jamie Stiehm: Obama Passive-Aggressive in the Face of Syria Hawks
  • Read Peter Fenn: Sping Robins and Family Make Politics Seem Silly
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad