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Will the Supreme Court uphold religious freedom?

From an editorial in the Chicago Tribune on Friday:

Last year, President Barack Obama scrambled to quell a fierce outcry from some religious groups over a mandate in the Affordable Care Act that health insurance cover contraceptives. The administration approved an exemption for churches, but the requirement still falls on many religious organizations and on employers who object as a matter of faith.

The requirement has sparked dozens of lawsuits from groups that say it infringes on their religious freedom. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge from two companies.

Last week, in a surprise, Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily blocked the administration from forcing religious-affiliated groups to provide such coverage to their employees.

Sotomayor issued her order in a case involving a Colorado order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Under the Obamacare rules, the Little Sisters and other religious organizations need not directly provide insurance coverage of contraceptives, but they must sign a certification that allows their insurers to offer those services. The legal challenge asserts that the mandate, which includes some contraceptives considered to be abortifacients, forces the groups to violate their religious beliefs.

They have a strong constitutional argument and they’ve found the right venue: the U.S. Supreme Court.

The administration has set out a complicated standard for whether a company or organization should be exempt from these rules. On one end stand for-profit corporations, which aren’t exempt. At the other end, churches and some other religious institutions, which are excused. In the middle are many groups that have a religious affiliation and a faith-based mission, such as Catholic-affiliated universities and hospitals, and the Little Sisters of the Poor in Colorado.

Last week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, complained in a letter to Obama that while the administration had “relaxed the rules” for many Americans’ health plans, “one category of Americans … has been left out in the cold: Those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply” with the contraception mandate.

We’re not arguing against insurance coverage of contraceptives. But a government mandate that religious organizations violate the tenets of their faith is an unconstitutional reach.

The administration should provide a much broader conscience exemption for the insurance mandate. Exempt any entity that would be forced to contravene its religious teachings and beliefs.

Obamacare is the law. But the constitutional protection of religious freedom shouldn’t be parsed or shaded by the law.

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