Under pressure from religious and conservative groups, the Obama administration has offered another compromise on the issue of birth-control coverage within the Affordable Care Act. While exempting churches and some religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and universities, from supplying the coverage, the new proposal calls for their employees to receive stand-alone private insurance policies providing birth-control coverage at no cost. Insurance companies will foot the bill, but only the naive can possibly think the cost won’t find its way back to the institution in the form of higher health premiums.
Numerous lawsuits filed against this and other portions of “Obamacare” will proceed, and for good reason: The federal government seems intent on setting rules on matters of conscience and, worse, defining what constitutes a church or religious institution.
One of the litigants is Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores whose CEO, David Green, is an evangelical Christian. Green said, “We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.” That mandate includes, in addition to contraceptive coverage in employees’ health care, “preventive services,” including “morning-after” pills and other drugs that Green considers abortifacients. The Christian Post reported that after Hobby Lobby’s legal appeal was rejected, the company then made plans to “shift the beginning of its employee health plan to temporarily avoid $1.3 million a day in fines for each day since Jan. 1 that it did not comply with the Affordable Care Act.” Hobby Lobby’s appeals continue.
The core issue as I see it – and there are others – is whether the government has the right to define a church as a building in which people congregate on Sundays and whether a private company headed by a religious person qualifies for conscience exemptions. For government to decide such things violates the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, which state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and it appears to put the state in the position of supreme authority and arbiter of what constitutes “legitimate” religious faith and practice. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely have to resolve its constitutionality.
Permit me to offer the justices some assistance.
The early church was not a building with a towering steeple. The early church met in homes. If one accepts New Testament teaching (and what higher authority on the church could there be?), the concept of the church being an organism that resides in each individual believer is clearly spelled out.
Paul the Apostle writes in his letter to the Colossians (1:24) about the “body” of Jesus Christ, “which is the church.” By this, he means the “body of believers” in whom Christ dwells. It was only later that this concept of church was turned into something with expensive buildings, tax exemptions and denominations.
The same theme can be found in Revelation where John is asked by Jesus to write letters to several churches. Those, too, were bodies of believers, not physical structures.
The administration’s efforts to effectively gerrymander lines between what it considers legitimate religious practice and the secular is what the founders had hoped to avoid when they linked the establishment clause with the free exercise clause.
That is why, among other reasons, government should not mandate birth-control coverage as part of any national health care plan.