Religion is a seven-day-a-week commitment. Pope Benedict XVI made that clear when he asked in 2008: “Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?” His question of the U.S. bishops during his visit to Washington strikes home now, after a Colorado judge weighed in on the question.
In defending the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate for almost all private health plans this past month, Justice Department attorneys insisted that the answer to this is that Catholics not only may, but must, leave their faith and values at the door when they operate a business during the week. Thankfully, on July 27, U.S. District Court Judge John Kane ruled that the Obama administration has a weak argument.
The case, Newland v. Sebelius, involved a final rule published Feb. 15 forcing private health plans to provide coverage for female sterilization, all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices (including those that may induce an early abortion), and “counseling and education” to promote these to women and teenage girls. Two dozen law suits, representing 58 plaintiffs, have been filed against this mandate on religious freedom grounds.
One suit was brought by Hercules Industries, which makes and distributes heating and cooling equipment in Colorado, and the four Newland siblings who own and operate the company. Devoutly Catholic, the Newlands have a generous health plan for employees that excludes procedures that violate their Catholic faith such as sterilization and contraception.
They also have a company charter that subordinates profits to the well-being of their employees, and they expend considerable effort donating and raising money for charitable causes, from Catholic activities to the relief of those suffering from the recent drought and subsequent brushfires in Colorado. Because the HHS mandate took effect Wednesday for companies like theirs, the Newlands urged the judge to rule on a preliminary injunction as soon as possible.
In response, the Obama administration argued that the government has a “compelling interest” in serving the health of women by maximizing access to contraception, and in any case that religion has no relevance once a family enters the “secular” world of business.
In granting the injunction to Hercules Industries, Kane pointed out that the government’s “compelling interest” claim is undermined by its failure to apply the mandate to millions of other employees (such as those covered by older health plans that have “grandfathered” status). These exemptions are granted on far less fundamental grounds than religious freedom.
This case is not over. While Kane enjoined the mandate for the moment, he wants to deliberate further on questions such as: “Can a corporation exercise religion?” Waiting down the road are three other law suits by Catholic-owned businesses in Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania, and many more suits filed by nonprofit religious organizations offering health care, education and charitable services that are not exempt from the contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.
Notably, Kane found that any “public interest” in imposing the mandate on this business was “countered, and indeed outweighed, by the public interest in the free exercise of religion.” These law suits raise a broader question about the public interest as well.
Where indeed does the public interest lie on this matter of religious freedom?
At a time when the government is rightly trying to move toward universal health coverage, does it serve the public interest to tell some nonprofit and for-profit organizations that they must violate their deepest beliefs or drop their health coverage?
At a time when people recognize that the United States’ financial crisis was caused in part by corporations that operated without regard to moral values, does it really help the country to say that corporations must operate without deeply held beliefs and values? If an employer’s dealings with its employees and customers may not follow a Christian ethic, what ethic if any must it operate by?
Pope Benedict’s answer to the question he raised in 2008 was that “any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”
I would add that only then can they truly make their contribution to our wonderfully diverse and pluralistic society, in which the business world – no less than the political world – could use a healthy dose of values. I hope even the federal government will come to recognize this truth.