The freedom to observe your religion has always been a high priority in this country, but what happens when your beliefs differ from those of your employer?
On New Year’s Eve, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blocked implementation of a section of the Affordable Health Care Act that would have required religious organizations against birth control to sign a form deputizing a third party to provide health insurance covering birth control for its employees.
The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Baltimore and Denver had requested the injunction, noting that not only are they against birth control but their religion also forbids them from allowing another party to sin on their behalf, according to Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead counsel for the Little Sisters.
In his reply brief to the Supreme Court, Rienzi likened the opt-out form that Little Sisters refused to sign to a “‘permission slip’ that authorizes and in some cases commands another organization to provide objectionable drugs to the Little Sisters’ employees within the terms of the Little Sisters’ health plan.”
The nonprofit Little Sisters participate in a pharmacy plan with Express Scripts, which is a secular organization that doesn’t necessarily share the Little Sisters’ religious convictions against birth control.
Nathan Diament, director of the Advocacy Center of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, doesn’t share the views of the Little Sisters, but he understands their concerns. “You have a religious person saying I would be in violation of my beliefs” if a particular law was followed. “There is a real issue there,” he said.
“We at the OU [Orthodox Union], while we’ve made clear we don’t have the same issue on birth control as the Catholic Church, we’ve been vocal supporters of the religious lobby,” Diament said. “This is a serious issue for religious liberty. You can’t pick and choose your own religious liberties,” he said. “Religious liberty is a core principle we’ve benefited from in the Jewish community.”
Diament wondered aloud what would happen if the government one day decided that for the sake of the economy, all stores must be open seven days a week. Clearly that would violate the religious practices of Sabbath-observant Jews, he said.
But Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, said that hypothetical was unconstitutional and that there is an important distinction. “If you are taking government money, as for instance Catholic Hospitals are doing, then you have to” abide by governmental laws. “I think it’s inappropriate for individual companies to expect their religious beliefs” to rise above than law.
He pointed to same sex marriages. No one is asking a church leader to officiate, “but law is law,” Susskind said.
“For us, the question is religious liberty and the appropriate separation of church and state.”
National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) also was “dismayed” with the Supreme Court’s action. “The objections brought by the order of nuns who own and operate nursing homes, Little Sisters of the Poor, is hollow. Because of the way they are insured, they are not compelled to cover birth control for their employees,” said CEO Nancy Kaufman in a statement sent to Washington Jewish Week.
“NCJW continues to be concerned that the religious liberty of the many women who work at these nursing homes is being ignored. The employees who will not be able to access affordable contraceptive coverage will be prevented from making their own moral and religious decisions about this health care.”
Sammie Moshenberg, director of the NCJW Washington operations, said her organization works together with other faith-based groups, all of which have their own religious views. But birth control “is so fundamental to women’s religious liberty and health care” that it is difficult to believe any women’s group “would take a pass on this one, either way,” Moshenberg said.
She praised the Obama administration for providing religious groups with an out so they don’t have to pay for birth control and believes that should be considered a satisfactory compromise.
Moshenberg said exempting Little Sisters would violate the rights of so many who work at their nursing homes, from orderlies and activity directors to the female family members of those employees who are under the same health care plan.
“Birth control isn’t controversial. It’s not. It’s being made controversial by Little Sisters,” she said. “I don’t expect Catholic institutions to change their minds. The question is, are they going to impose their minds on others.”
She said Little Sisters really was “protecting the bosses’ religious beliefs and trampling on the workers. It’s crazy,” she said, calling for a level playing field where everyone can make their own health decisions.