Legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate pose a difficult problem: When one person’s religious freedom conflicts with another’s rights, who should prevail? Federal appeals courts have issued opposite rulings. The Supreme Court will resolve the issue.
One of the litigants is a Mennonite family-owned company, Conestoga Wood Specialties of Lancaster County, Pa. The owners, Norman and Elizabeth Hahn, are members of Weaverland Conference, a car-driving Old Order group. The Hahns object to covering certain kinds of birth control in employees’ health insurance. The Hahns contend it would violate their conscience to have anything to do with paying for specific contraceptives, such as morning-after pills, which they believe are abortion-inducing.
Conestoga, with 950 employees, is the smaller of two companies whose arguments the Supreme Court will hear in March or April. The other, Hobby Lobby, is a chain of 500 arts-and-crafts stores with 13,000 full-time employees. Its owners, David and Barbara Green, have vowed to operate their company on biblical principles.
Thus there is a clash of rights. On one side are business owners who believe they have a right to avoid cooperating in the provision of services they consider morally wrong. On the other are employees who have a right to receive a health benefit the law requires.
How should the Supreme Court decide? Perhaps by answering questions like these: Who would bear a greater burden if their right were lost? Which right, when given priority, would constrain someone else’s freedom less severely? Are the companies’ owners claiming a greater right to impose their beliefs than the law allows?
Between the owners’ right to freedom of conscience and the employees’ right to equal access to health services, issues of faith and fairness stand against each other in a conflict not easily resolved. From a peace-church perspective, freedom of conscience is a highly valued right, exercised in the exemption from military service when there is a draft and desired in the hope of redirecting to peaceful purposes the taxes that now go to the military.
But there is an important difference between these issues and the contraception mandate: Avoiding military service and redirecting tax money don’t impose a burden on another person. An exemption from the contraception mandate would permit the companies to do just that: restrict employees’ rights due to the owners’ religious beliefs. This is a precedent the court, quite understandably, might decide it should not set. The court might also uphold the principle that religious freedom is a right exercised by people, not by secular for-profit companies, which have no capacity for religious belief.
The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the government from imposing a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion unless there is a compelling reason. This case might provide such a reason. Freedom of conscience is a right, but with limits. When exercising one’s beliefs would deny others their rights, the court could reasonably decide a limit has been reached.