Sometimes a fire that you think has been extinguished reignites. Religious non-profit groups are experiencing this phenomenon right now.
For five long years, the abortion lobby and its friends in the Obama administration attempted through the infamous Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to torch Americans’ religious liberty guarantees by compelling faith-based organizations to violate their core beliefs. The organization I lead, Priests for Life, filed one of the cases challenging this mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. And we won that battle.
Or so it seemed.
Two moves, one by the state of California and one days ago by a judge in Pennsylvania, seek to reignite the flames of tyranny against religious non-profit groups. These flare-ups raise the question, will the Supreme Court maintain the firewall around the longstanding right to exercise one’s own religious beliefs?
Under President Obama, the Department of Health and Human Services issued an edict that demanded religious employers become complicit in the provision of abortion-causing drugs and devices to their employees. This regulation affected nearly every employer in America, with some exemptions which, rather than taking account of the citizen’s religious or moral objections, only considered how their organizations were structured in the tax code. This led many groups, including Priests for Life, to challenge the mandate and demand a religious exemption.
After a long legal fight, the Supreme Court in 2016 voided all court rulings that upheld the HHS mandate. They asked the government and the groups involved to work out a compromise that would protect the plaintiffs’ rights.
Such a settlement was reached with Priests for Life earlier this year. It declares that our organization will be exempt from any HHS mandate or similar version thereof in the future.
Beyond individual agreements, the Trump administration has also revoked and revised the offending regulation, freeing not just the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court cases, but all religious non-profit organizations from having the government tell them what they can and can’t believe. This revision accomplishes what the Obama administration could have done from the very beginning —protect the religious freedom of citizens, and refrain from forcing those who object to abortion and contraception from helping the government to make it more easily available.
But attaining a policy goal without subjugating religious pro-lifers apparently wasn’t good enough for the abortion lobby and those officials who give it cover. Two states with pro-abortion attorneys general, Pennsylvania and California, are suing to stop the new regulation.
Pennsylvania alleges that the Trump administration’s version of the HHS mandate will cause employees of religiously-based entities to lose contraceptive coverage even though such coverage will still be available to them if they want it. In turn, Pennsylvania claims it will then be obligated to provide contraceptives to these religious women, causing the state economic harm.
Federal Judge Wendy Beetlestone, who happens to be an Obama appointee, agreed with Pennsylvania’s attorney general, granting a nationwide preliminary injunction against the new HHS rule.
Meanwhile, not only is a second lawsuit against the Trump HHS regulation pending in California, but a different violation of religious rights has also emerged from the state.
In 2015, California legislators approved and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a measure that forces licensed pregnancy resource centers – facilities that offer women pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, and alternatives to abortion – to promote abortion.
Under the statute, the deceptively-named Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency) Act, these pregnancy centers must post in their waiting rooms or hand to women notices which state that California provides free and low-cost abortions. They must also tell women where to call to find out if they qualify for such taxpayer-funded terminations.
Unsurprisingly, pregnancy resource centers filed suit. As Care Net, a non-profit group that supports a nationwide network of such facilities, notes, forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to tell women where and how they might get abortions is akin to forcing Alcoholics Anonymous to inform meeting attendees where and how they might get a drink. In both cases, an organization is ordered, through forced speech, to undermine its own mission.
The California law, which attacks both free speech and religious liberty rights, is now before the Supreme Court in the case of NIFLA v. Becerra. The Pennsylvania case, given its subject matter long history of legal battles, could be heard by the highest court at some point as well.
In both instances, the lawsuits will be heard by a court that includes Justice Neil Gorsuch, who notably testified at his confirmation hearings that he will act as a judge, not a legislator. He will also need to work as a type of fireman, given the abortion industry’s increasing attempts to reduce the First Amendment to ashes. And countless Americans will be on hand as well, defending the liberty they are blessed to enjoy.
Father Frank Pavone is an American Roman Catholic priest and the national director of Priests for Life.