Little Sisters, big case

Turn on cable television and you’ll likely see people screaming at each other. Log on to your Facebook page and you’ll experience a similar reality. With all the fuming controversy in America, why would we stir up culture wars where we don’t really even need them? That’s the question the Supreme Court will take up next week.

Before the Court, our federal government will argue that it can force religious ministries to help provide things the government itself can and does provide. The “things” in question are abortion-inducing drugs and other contraceptives. And the religious ministries sincerely believe that they cannot do what the government demands. Some of these ministries are, like me, Baptist. Others, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor are Catholic. This really shouldn’t be an argument. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which represents the Little Sisters and several Baptist ministries.)

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After all, whatever our disagreements in America, most of us agree that the government shouldn’t force our fellow Americans to violate their deepest religious convictions for no reason at all. Now, we all agree there are sometimes going to be some hard calls—where the government has a very good reason to override religious conscience and where there’s no other real alternative. This is not one of those cases.

The government isn’t really arguing that it has no other choice. The government instead is arguing that the ministries misunderstand their own faith; that they can participate in its complicated contraceptive delivery scheme without disobeying God. Setting aside the un-American idea of government officials instructing citizens on what God wants, this argument is insane. Is the government really more Catholic than nuns? Is the government more Baptist than the churches and theologians telling them we can’t in good conscience follow their so-called accommodation?

I believe that every person will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, and give an account for their life, including how we spent our resources. You don’t have to agree with me on that, or on abortion or on anything else. I don’t even agree with the Little Sisters on their views on the morality of contraception. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the ministries themselves sincerely believe what the government demands of them is wrong. The government’s theology lesson to these ministries is an expensive one—threatening massive fines every year. The Little Sisters alone face a staggering $70 million penalty just to continue serving elderly poor people as they have for 175 years.

Here’s why this case should be easy. There are many readily available alternatives. We don’t have to force these ministries to violate their consciences, and we can get the same result, the result the government wants. Just to take one example, the government’s health insurance exchanges are now in every state. President Obama himself says these exchanges are “real simple” to use, comparing using them to shopping for a television on Amazon.

By law, employees of ministries such as the Little Sisters can—right now, today—shop for insurance on the exchanges. That insurance already comes with the drugs that the government insists the ministries provide. Since the government has already promised to pay for the drugs on the ministries’ insurance plan, why can’t it offer the drugs for free on its own plans?

Here we have what we rarely see in the culture wars: a win-win compromise. The government gets to deliver its drugs. The ministries aren’t forced to disobey God. The government, though, refuses to take “yes” for an answer. Instead, the government insists that it must use the ministries to accomplish its goal of universal coverage.

But this can’t be true. Over 100 million Americans don’t have health plans that must offer the government’s drugs. The government exempts big businesses such as Exxon and big municipalities such as New York City, and does so just to reduce administrative inconvenience for these entities. The government even exempts itself, refusing to require the U.S. military—the nation’s largest employer—to provide the same drugs they want to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide.

My children learn in Sunday School, as I did, about the three Jewish children who were sentenced to death for refusing, on grounds of faith, to bow down to a symbol of the ruler. Their failure to perform the act didn’t hurt the national economy or security. But the political class insisted on it, at the cost of conscience itself. The price was too high.

America is better than that. The Supreme Court has recognized that our exceptionalism comes in part due to the struggle for religious liberty where our ancestors “suffered death rather than subordinate their allegiance to God to the authority of the State.” Some of those cases were difficult ones, but we always found a way to live together without a government big enough to pave over our consciences.

This is not one of those hard cases. Let’s hope the Court stands up for freedom and cooperation, not for government pressure and coercion.

Moore is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and author of Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel.

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