In 2012, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a final mandate that every employer providing health insurance must offer full coverage for contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs. Catholics and many other Christians have found that the mandate forces them to choose between violating their consciences or terminating their organizations. Although churches are exempt, the religious exemption does not extend to other nonprofits like Christian colleges and parachurch organizations, despite a so-called accommodation that was added. The religious exemption also does not apply to private businesses that are owned by Christians whose beliefs are being disregarded.

With assistance from the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, 91 court cases involving over 300 organizations have been filed against the government, seeking relief. Oklahoma Wesleyan University is one of the plaintiffs. How are those cases coming along? The results so far are encouraging, although the ultimate outcomes will no doubt be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, lower courts have not been sympathetic to a three-tiered system of religious freedom. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of the cases.

  • Churches, again, are granted the exemptions one would expect under the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, the mandate disregards constitutional protections for all other organizations and citizens in the case of this mandate.The idea that a government department can, by executive order, decide whose religious freedoms can be trampled on, is particularly repugnant.
  • Religious nonprofits are winning in federal courts, 19 to 1. Religious nonprofit organizations such as faith-based colleges and universities, hospitals, adoption agencies, and anti-poverty groups are not exempt. Instead, the government has offered a cosmetic accommodation. In the 20 religious nonprofit cases where the courts have ruled on the request for relief from the mandate, the religious organizations have won, 19 to 1, against the accommodation.
  • Businesses are winning in court, 33 to 6. Businesses–organizations involved in commerce–no matter the convictions of the owners or how extensively the policies and practices of the companies are shaped by religious convictions, are given no religious freedom protection at all. In the 39 business cases where the courts have ruled on the request for relief, the businesses have won 33 to 6.

On January 15, the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was written by Thomas Jefferson and which is one of the sources for the religious freedom protections in the First Amendment, President Obama issued a proclamation commemorating Religious Freedom Day.

The President said:

“America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.”

American citizens, religious organizations, and companies of conviction that count on the government to protect our right to religious exercise, and not only the freedom of religious belief and worship, should be grateful for the proclamation–and warily prayerful as we watch what the federal government actually does.

The source of this information is the newsletter of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.