In response to the recent HHS mandate requiring virtually all private health care plans to cover sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception, the rally seeks to underscore that the lack of an exemption based on religious beliefs is not solely a Catholic issue, but a national issue.
The church has been roundly criticized for their opposition to this mandate citing that many Catholic women choose to use artificial contraception; that it’s a matter of public health; that women should have artificial contraception available to them no matter who they work for; and that the church’s views on contraception are generally outdated.
Those arguments are, however, irrelevant to the core issue, which is whether or not the HHS mandate violates the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The difficult thing about protecting rights, especially those outlined in the First Amendment, is recognizing that sometimes the opinions or practices of those protected are not always popular.
There are numerous examples of the Supreme Court upholding First Amendment rights of free speech even though a majority of citizens might find the message repugnant. As was noted in the case of Collin v Smith (7th Circuit 1978) concerning a march planned by a white supremacist group, “The conflict underlying this litigation has commanded substantial public attention, and engendered considerable and understandable emotion. We would hopefully surprise no one by confessing personal views that NSPA‘s beliefs and goals are repugnant to the core values held generally by residents of this country, and, indeed, to much of what we cherish in civilization. As judges sworn to defend the Constitution, however, we cannot decide this or any case on that basis. Ideological tyranny, no matter how worthy its motivation, is forbidden as much to appointed judges as to elected legislators.”
The litmus test for matters of conscience can be no less stringent. Any legislation that ignores the rights of conscience, or any right, will always be a double-edged sword. The federal government is not unbiased, nor impartial, and is subject to the whims of the ideology of the prevailing party. What may seem today to be the “sensible” thing to do could tomorrow be the “ideological tyranny” mentioned above, which is precisely the purpose of having a Bill of Rights at all.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the HHS mandate that have nothing at all to do with religion or conscience (the fact that it does not pertain to federal employers, federal money or funding, but concentrates on private employers and private insurance companies is but one example), but protecting the rights of religion and conscience strikes at the very core of this nation’s identity as a free country unencumbered by the varying whims of its leaders.
Just as there was opposition to the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the Keep Our Communities Safe Act, and other recent legislation proposed from both sides of the aisle for their potential for violating constitutional rights, so too does the HHS mandate requiring private employers and insurance companies to provide a particular set of products and services, without allowing for religious beliefs or conscience, deserve a thorough review.