Obamacare v. the First Amendment

The Supreme Court of the United States is no stranger to matters involving excessive presidential power over businesses and individuals. A key part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act was struck down by the high court in 1935, which ruled unanimously in Schechter v. United States that the act gave too much power to the president in regulating work hours and wages.   

Presidential power came under the eye of the court 17 years later when Harry Truman issued an executive order seizing control of steel mills. The decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer, handed down in 1952, declared the president exceeded his authority in taking over large swaths of the steel industry.

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On Tuesday, March 25th, the Supreme Court contemplated the rights of business, and the extent to which the government can arbitrarily impose its will over the First Amendment rights of private companies.  The case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. brings the Affordable Care Act and its health care mandates to the legal forefront.  The oral arguments, presented March 25, represent the final step toward a court decision that will have far reaching ramifications.

Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts retailer with some 550 stores nationwide, has articulated its position clearly and simply; it has no interest in making health care decisions for its 21,000 employees. But the dictates of Obamacare currently force Hobby Lobby and other businesses to violate their conscience.  The circumstances are similar in the case of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v. Sebelius, which will be argued in tandem with the Hobby Lobby case.

Oddly, the administration has allowed religious institutions to be exempt from certain Obamacare provisions that violate their First Amendment rights but fails to recognize that individuals and companies can share the same convictions as exempt religious organizations. Detractors falsely portray the cases in terms of birth control or zealotry but the true question is whether the protections of the First Amendment extend to companies.

The five fundamental rights of the First Amendment - religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly and the right to petition the government for redress - represent the core of the American founding.  The problem is that some want to cherry pick which provisions will be held sacrosanct and which will be disregarded.  We can’t do that; the First Amendment is a package deal.  The news media, for example, would be hypocritical in defending freedom of the press while not defending, with equal vigor, freedom of speech, religion or any other aspect of the amendment.

There were parallel constitutional principles underlying the recent decision on whether Tea Party Patriots is entitled to freedom of speech as a recognized 501 (c) (3) and (c) (4) organization by the Internal Revenue Service.  We ultimately prevailed without intervention by the Supreme Court, but have an innate appreciation for the First Amendment like that held by others who struggled for years in pursuit of free speech.

It’s ironic that the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases are being heard during the week marking the fourth anniversary of Obamacare’s enactment. The “law of the land,” as Obamacare has routinely been characterized, ought not compel people to choose between their First Amendment rights and federal prosecution. That is the question facing the court as it considers final arguments.

People can have honest disagreements over the particulars of the Affordable Care Act but when it comes to preserving the First Amendment rights of people subject to it, there should be no debate. Let’s hope at least five court justices agree.

Martin is co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.