The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday is the simple fact that “religious liberty is one of America’s foundation freedoms.” It is the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, and it is the freedom that protects our freedom of conscious or our freedom to believe as we choose. According to a Deseret News Editorial, the U.S. Supreme Court made two decisions this week that show the importance of our First Freedom.
In the first case, the Court ruled that religiously affiliated companies will no longer be required to protect health coverage for birth control if they consider it to be morally wrong. “This case is separate, and yet related in principle, to one several years ago” concerning the Little Sisters of the Poor. This “order of Catholic nuns … cares for sick elderly people.” “Founded in 19th century France by Saint Jeanne Jugan,” it no longer must provide contraception coverage in its employees’ health plan. “That case led the court to recognize a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act. In this case, the court expanded that exemption.”
The Court recognized that Obamacare conflicted with “the Constitution’s guarantee of free religious exercise.” This includes churches, business owners, and individuals – many of whom “hold deep, faith-informed beliefs.” If the government forced these people to provide something that they did not believe to be good, it would violate “government neutrality on religious believes” and inhibit “the free exercise of convictions.”
The second “decision involved two cases that focused on the ministerial exception that prohibits governments from interfering in matters between churches and their ministers.” The Court ruled that the government cannot require “a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or [punish] a church for failing to do so” because this involves more than a decision about employment. Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.” The editorial concluded with these paragraphs.
Significantly, this ruling offers an important clarification to another recent ruling that protected gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination. Faith-based schools such as BYU, for instance, will be less exposed to lawsuits over LGBTQ-related policies and decisions.
Some are viewing these decisions as weakening the principle of a separation of church and state. In fact, the opposite is true. By increasing religious exemptions from government requirements, the court has kept government from intruding on, and thus weakening, the ability of religious people and churches to exercise their beliefs. It has stopped government from effectively deciding which religious beliefs are sanctioned and which are not.
That’s good news for faith-based people and institutions, and for the U.S. Constitution.