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Religious liberty in the balance at the Supreme Court [Commentary]

Shortly, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a highly-anticipated decision that could go a long way in determining the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the religious liberty rights of conscientious family business owners who simply wish to continue operating their companies according to their beliefs. The cases involving Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties are two of 100 lawsuits filed against the federal government in response to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring that employee health insurance cover contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs and female sterilization, in order to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

These lawsuits argue that the mandate, among other things, coerces religious believers to act against their most deeply-held beliefs, which violates the U.S. Constitution, our laws, and our long tradition of religious liberty. The mandate prevents Hobby Lobby and others from expressing a moral view and instead forces them to adopt the federal government's moral views. (It should be noted that the government has already exempted over 100 million employees from the mandate for commercial and political reasons but severely fines family businesses that seek an exemption for religious reasons.)

The HHS mandate is the clearest example of how religious liberty is being threatened in our nation today. It is more subtle and less violent, to be sure, than the many serious threats that exist around the world, but such threats in the United States should not be ignored, lest they become only the latest in a series of rights to be trampled by government at all levels.

Though the Catholic Church has taken the lead in fighting such an incursion on religious freedom by the federal government, we are not alone. The families and individuals suing the government over the mandate also include Evangelicals, Mennonites and other religious groups. And the suits before the Supreme Court are supported by Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others.

But for Catholics, the mandate is deeply troubling. We are longstanding advocates of universal, accessible and life-affirming health care. Yet the HHS mandate harshly penalizes us and others who can't in good conscience abide by its requirements. This regulation will force faith-based charities, schools, hospitals and social service ministries to pay steep fines, reducing their ability to serve the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. It will prevent them from living their faith by reducing religious freedom to the freedom to worship on Sundays.

Pope Francis has cautioned Catholics against being "part-time Christians." God's word and law, the Pope said, are "inscribed in our heart and become the principle in us for evaluating our choices and guide for our daily actions. … You are Christians at all times, completely."

The Catholic Church in the United States is currently engaged in a prayer and education campaign called the Fortnight for Freedom, focused on curtailing threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. This isn't about religious people trying to force their beliefs on others. It's about the government trying to force its beliefs on religious people. "America is at its best when religion has a place at the table," Cardinal Timothy Dolan said. And he's right. Faith is a good thing, a very good thing. And its expression enriches public life. It inspires people to serve their neighbors, and it brings people together. Regardless of our personal beliefs, we should all be able to agree that the government must not use its coercive power to force Americans to act in violation of their beliefs to make a living or to serve their communities. To do so is unlawful, unjust and un-American.

William E. Lori is the archbishop of Baltimore and the chairman of the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He can be reached at communications@archbalt.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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