Remember the "HHS mandate"?
Religious non-profit groups can hardly forget it – it's still hanging over our heads. We at Priests for Life were the fourth group in the nation to challenge it some five years ago. But with the issuance of President Trump's recent executive order on religious liberty, the end of this legal battle to keep the government from rewriting Church teaching is on the horizon.
We just can't tell yet how far away that horizon is.
The so-called HHS mandate was an effort by the Obama administration to force virtually every employer to participate in making available to our employees abortion causing drugs and devices, contraceptives, and sterilization procedures. It wasn't just that the government wanted to deliver these items to our employees, it's that it wanted us to be complicit in the delivery. In other words, it demanded that we commit what our faith declares to be grave evil.
For any employer whose conscience would not let them do this, it was a classic case of government coercion -- for groups like Priests for Life whose very purpose is to end abortion, it was a direct assault on our very reason for being.
Closely-held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby won a hard fought victory over the government's HHS mandate three years ago in a five-to-four Supreme Court decision. The ruling, though, did not cover religious non-profit entities such as Priests for Life, East Texas Baptist University, and dozens of other petitioners. We have been waging our own separate legal battles, some of us since 2012, and some of us made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Frankly, after the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down, non-profit religiously-based charities and organizations were expecting a similar result from the Supreme Court in our cases. But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who cast the deciding vote in Hobby Lobby, complicated matters.
When Priests for Life's lawsuit – and six other consolidated cases – reached the Supreme Court last year, the eight justices took a most unusual step. After oral arguments had been completed, instead of reaching a decision, the Court ordered that both sides submit additional briefs. Specifically, the Court wanted to know if the government could provide items deemed objectionable by religious groups to our employees without our involvement.
Both the faith-based non-profit groups and the government agreed that this was possible.
The Supreme Court then unanimously vacated all of the lower court judgments in our cases, rendering them void. It sent all seven lawsuits back to their respective federal appellate courts in the Third, Fifth, Tenth and District of Columbia circuits. It requested that those tribunals give all parties time to work out a mutual accommodation.
That accommodation, however, was never reached in the waning months of the Obama administration. Then, the November elections happened. Everything changed -- and for the better.
In early May, Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty, presenting the signing pen to Priests for Life's Alveda King. (Alveda is one of the personal petitioners in our Priests for Life lawsuit.) In the order, the president directed the Secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services Departments to "consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the [HHS] mandate."
HHS Secretary Tom Price immediately responded to the executive order, stating, "We will be taking action in short order to follow the President's instruction to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees."
So here we are.
We are fully confident that, unlike the previous administration, the actions that the Trump administration will take will accommodate our religious beliefs in a way that we find acceptable.
And by "we," I mean 140 different plaintiffs including 40 charities and 37 universities that have brought more than 50 lawsuits against the HHS mandate's attack on religious liberty. Before any of us can be sure that we are free to follow our churches' teachings without civil punishment, our legal cases, which are still technically in the hands of the courts, must be settled. And beyond that, we also look for a legislative remedy to the problem which will strengthen religious freedom for Priests for Life and countless others for many years to come.
In reflection, it's time and money that have been wasted by the Obama administration's obstinate attempt to coerce religious charities to bow before it.
We may never know why Obama exempted companies like Exxon/Mobil, Chevron, or Pepsi from the HHS mandate, but selectively included in its reach church-based organizations that have moral objections to his pro-abortion agenda. But what we do know is that the past five years of court fights have been completely unnecessary. The Obama administration admitted to the Supreme Court that it could devise a way to implement the HHS mandate that pleased everyone. So why didn't it do so from the beginning?
The days of the federal government telling church groups what they can and cannot believe are almost over. Elections do have consequences, but elections can go both ways. As we build on the successes of last year's elections, let's be more vigilant than ever in working to keep our freedoms secure.
Father Frank Pavone (@frfrankpavone) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the national director of Priests for Life.
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