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SBC entities back GuideStone at high court

WASHINGTON (BP) — Three Southern Baptist entities have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling against the convention’s health and financial benefits organization in a crucial religious freedom case.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Aug. 24, GuideStone Financial Resources received support from other Southern Baptist Convention entities in its challenge to the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate. The International Mission Board, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — as well as Southern’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr. — called in the brief for the high court to grant the appeal by GuideStone and other ministries.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver declined in July to grant an injunction blocking enforcement of the rule, rejecting arguments by GuideStone and a host of other religious non-profit organizations that the controversial mandate and its accommodation for such entities violate their religious freedom. The regulation requires employers to provide for their workers not only contraceptives but drugs and devices that can potentially cause abortions.

GuideStone, along with two of the ministries that participate in its health plans, joined the Little Sisters of the Poor and other organizations in appealing the 10th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court. The case is one of seven appeals before the high court of mandate rulings unfavorable to religious institutions. The justices are expected to consider review of the appeals from the religious institutions in late September or early October. The high court will open its next term Oct. 5, the first day for oral arguments.

In their brief, the SBC entities and Mohler say Christian and Southern Baptist doctrine teach it is a sin to support directly or indirectly the killing of an unborn child through abortion. “[A] statute or regulation requiring a Southern Baptist individual or ministry to be complicit in conduct the Christian faith teaches is morally wrong forces that person or ministry into an impossible choice — to either violate conscience or violate the law — and imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion,” the brief says.

In comments provided to Baptist Press, Mohler said, “We need to stand in every way with those seeking to protect the rights of religious conscience over against the tyranny of the state. In this case, we have the Obama administration telling Christian institutions when Christian conviction should and should not apply. That is simply not the role of the United States government, and that’s why this case is so important.”

ERLC President Russell Moore described the case as crucial for “the preservation of religious liberty.”

“A government that can pave over the consciences of some can steamroll over dissent everywhere,” Moore told BP. “My prayer is that the Supreme Court will once again intervene in this administration’s cavalier disregard for soul freedom and uphold God-given rights of conscience, not just of religious Americans but of all Americans.”

GuideStone welcomed the support from its fellow Southern Baptists, as well as the 20 states and various other organizations that filed briefs Aug. 24.

“This support is affirming, and we hope and pray that the Supreme Court will decide to hear the arguments in this case,” GuideStone General Counsel Harold R. Loftin Jr. said in a news release.

In spite of its July ruling, the 10th Circuit announced Aug. 21 it would maintain the preliminary injunction provided GuideStone by a federal judge nearly two years ago while the appeal to the Supreme Court proceeds.

The IMB and the ERLC also filed a friend-of-the-court brief Aug. 10 in support of another mandate appeal to the high court by Houston Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University and Westminster Theological Seminary.

The cases are two of 56 involving religious non-profit organizations that object to the rule issued in 2011 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help implement the health-care law enacted the previous year, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. HHS provided an exemption to the rule for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, non-profit organizations that object. It issued an accommodation for religious non-profits, but many of those ministries or institutions have found it unacceptable.

In its latest version announced in July, HSS finalized a rule that enables non-profit religious organizations to notify HHS in writing of their religious objections. In response, the federal government will notify the insurer or a third-party administrator it is responsible for providing employees of the non-profit with payments to cover the services.

Religious liberty and pro-life advocates find the rule woefully lacking, contending it is basically an accounting gimmick that makes the religious organizations channels through which coverage for contraceptives and potentially abortion-causing drugs is provided.

In their brief, the SBC entities and Mohler tell the Supreme Court, “In light of the broad scope of the Christian faith and the Southern Baptist theological opposition to abortion, [the organizations appealing to the justices] cannot, as a matter of doctrine and conscience, distribute abortion-inducing drugs and devices directly or indirectly by authorizing, obligating, or incentivizing a third party — and particularly their own third-party administrators — to use Petitioners’ health plans to provide such drugs and devices to others. Scripture and Southern Baptist belief prohibit not only direct and personal wrongdoing, but also complicity in doing what the Christian believes to be sin.”

The brief filed by the IMB, ERLC, Southern Seminary and Mohler points to the Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s statement of faith, and a series of pro-life resolutions adopted by messengers at annual meetings for more than three decades. Southern Baptists “have a firm and well-known theological opposition to abortion, and the Southern Baptist Convention has repeatedly expressed its opposition to abortion in the strongest terms,” according to the brief.

The mandate “substantially burdens the religious exercise of Petitioners’ Christian ministries by imposing draconian fines for acts specifically mandated by Christian doctrine,” the brief says. It asks the Supreme Court to review “whether centuries-old religious groups may practice their historic beliefs free from intrusive regulation.”

The abortion/contraception mandate violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), according to the brief. RFRA requires the government to have a compelling interest and to use the least narrow means to burden a person’s religious exercise.

GuideStone is exempt from the mandate and accompanying fines, but it serves ministries that face hefty penalties for failure to abide by the rule. Two of those — Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., and Oklahoma City-based Reaching Souls International — joined GuideStone in the suit. Truett-McConnell College is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, and Reaching Souls is a missions organization that trains Africans to reach their continent with the Gospel of Christ.

Little Sisters of the Poor — which joined GuideStone in appealing to the Supreme Court — is a Roman Catholic order of nuns that serves the needy in Denver.

The HHS mandate requires coverage of federally approved contraceptives, including the intrauterine device (IUD) and such drugs as Plan B, the “morning-after” pill. Both the IUD and “morning-after” pill possess post-fertilization mechanisms that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers “ella,” which — in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 — can even act after implantation to end the life of the child.

Among other organizations filing briefs Aug. 24 in support of GuideStone and its allies were the Christian Legal Society, American Center for Law and Justice, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and a group of Orthodox Jewish rabbis.