Obama Administration and Christian Church Groups Go to War Over Contraception Issue


The Supreme Court could use a Bill Clinton-era law against infringing on religious practices to sidestep its own precedent and rule in favor of Christian organizations that want to kill the administration’s requirement that health insurance plans cover contraception.

In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of two men, Alfred Smith and Galen Black, who had been fired from their jobs at a drug rehab center because they took Peyote as part of a Native American religious ceremony. The state of Oregon denied their claim for unemployment compensation because they’d been discharged for “misconduct,” and they sued, claiming that their religious freedom had been violated. Oregon’s Supreme Court sided with Smith and Black, but in a decision authored by Antonin Scalia, the high court ruled against them.  
The court, Scalia wrote in Employment Division v. Smith, has “consistently held that the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).'” Scalia’s opinion approvingly quoted an earlier ruling by Felix Frankfurter: “The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.” In other words, the First Amendment doesn’t give believers the right to skirt valid laws.
Now, in a series of lawsuits filed across the country, Christian organizations are asking the courts to rule otherwise. On Monday, 43 religious institutions filed 12 simultaneous lawsuits against the Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance plans, including those offered by religiously-affiliated employers that hire and serve people of other faiths, cover contraception. “If the Government can force religious institutions to violate their beliefs in such a manner, there is no apparent limit to the Government’s power,” says the suit brought by the University of Notre Dame. “Such an oppression of religious freedom violates Notre Dame’s clearly established constitutional and statutory rights.” The organizations suing the administration believe, to paraphrase Scalia, that they should be exempted from federal law because it prescribes conduct that their religion proscribes.
For conservatives on the Supreme Court to rule against the Obama administration, they’d have to break Scalia’s own precedent. “It’s a situation where [Scalia] is going to have to make the cat walk backwards in order to get to a place that would side with the plaintiffs,” says George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, a well-known civil libertarian.
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast
Michelle Goldberg