The editorial by the Los Angeles Times (bottom, below), my response (directly below) and the response of an attorney for atheists outline some of the arguments being made for and against the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the HHS contraceptives and sterilization mandate.
Re: "The rights of the religious," Editorial, Feb. 4
The Times rightly defends but wrongly interprets a federal law that forbids the government from imposing "substantial burdens" on the exercise of religious convictions and requires federal officials to pursue the "least restrictive means" of achieving any "compelling interest."
The Times neglects 1st Amendment principles in defending the administration's attempts to force employers with conscientious objections to bow to the government's edict to provide controversial contraceptives and sterilization surgeries.
The government easily could avoid restricting religious freedom by directly supplying poor women with contraceptives, just as it does worldwide.
Just as the 1st Amendment protects the free speech of citizens and corporations such as The Times, it also protects the free exercise of religion by citizens and employers. When the administration attempts to force even elderly nuns to violate their religious convictions, clearly the government has trampled on sacred 1st Amendment ground.
The writer is vice president for government relations at the Christian Medical Assn.
Re: "The rights of the religious," Editorial, Feb. 4
I am counsel of record on a Supreme Court brief representing atheist and secular organizations in the contraceptive mandate case. We argue that religious employers should have to obey laws that apply to everyone else, such as the requirement that all for-profit employers provide their workers with access to health insurance that permits employees to make their own decisions regarding contraception. I appreciate that The Times does not want these employers to prevail. However, in still defending the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, you fail to recognize the harm done to the quest for full equality, for everyone, if only religious believers are allowed to avoid complying with otherwise universally enforceable laws. In 1997, then-Supreme Court Justice Paul Stevens correctly saw that this law was unconstitutional because it allows religious adherents to challenge compliance with generally applicable laws in ways that are not equally available to agnostics and atheists.
--Edward Tabash, Beverly Hills
Defining the rights of the religious in America
Critics want to overturn the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but that's going too far.
By The Los Angeles Times editorial board
February 4, 2014
Two decades ago, Congress overwhelmingly approved and President Clinton enthusiastically signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But now that the 1993 law is being used to challenge the Obama administration's requirement that employer health plans include contraceptive services, some supporters of the law are having second thoughts, and several organizations want the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. That would be a mistake.
The law was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision involving two Oregon men who had been denied unemployment benefits after they were fired for using the hallucinogenic drug peyote during a Native American religious rite. In his decision for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia upheld the government's right to deny the benefits on the grounds that a religious motivation doesn't entitle a believer to disobey a generally applicable criminal law. Congress, in turn, passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government may "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" only if necessary to further a "compelling government interest" and only if the law in question is the "least restrictive means" of achieving that interest.
Next month the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases in which owners of for-profit businesses argue that the law allows them to disregard the contraceptive mandate because of their religious objections. We hope and expect that the court will reject their claim. The law refers to burdens on "a person's exercise of religion," not a corporation's, and the burden must be substantial. Providing insurance coverage for a woman who uses it to obtain contraceptives no more implicates an employer in her decision than does the payment of her salary, which can also be spent on birth control. Finally, ensuring that women have access to preventive healthcare is clearly a compelling interest.
But we don't think the law should be declared unconstitutional, as several organizations — including the Freedom From Religion Foundation — have argued. They claim that it is a "takeover of [the Supreme] Court's power to interpret the Constitution" and amounts to an "establishment" of religion in violation of the 1st Amendment.
This goes too far. Congress is free to protect rights more comprehensively than the 1st Amendment does, whether it is religious freedom or the right of reporters to protect their confidential sources (the aim of a proposed federal shield law). The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a balanced effort to protect religious liberty. Properly interpreted, it doesn't require the court to weaken the contraceptive mandate.
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