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SBC entities to court: Mandate violates religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP) — The Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate forces Christians to violate either their religious beliefs or the government’s rules, Southern Baptist entities have told the U.S. Supreme Court.

[[email protected]@180=“If the government can do this, then the government can do anything.”
— Russell Moore]In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday (Jan. 11), the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the International Mission Board (IMB) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — as well as Southern’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr. — urged the high court to rule the controversial, federal regulation infringes religious freedom.

The abortion/contraception mandate — issued in support of the 2010 health-care reform law — requires employers to provide for their workers not only contraceptives but drugs and devices that can potentially cause abortions. Debilitating fines face those who refuse to abide by the requirement.

The Supreme Court has consolidated seven cases involving a variety of religious, nonprofit organizations that have challenged the requirement but lost at the appeals court level. Among the challengers are several Southern Baptist institutions, including GuideStone Financial Resources.

The justices have yet to schedule oral arguments in the combined case, which is consolidated under the title Zubik v. Burwell, but they likely will hear them in March or possibly April. The court is expected to issue its opinion before its term ends, which normally is in late June.

The case, ERLC President Russell Moore said, will be “pivotal in maintaining soul freedom for all people.”

“The Obama administration has repeatedly, and without ceasing, overstepped the bounds of the state in binding consciences, forcing people to do what they believe to be sin,” Moore said in a written release. “If the government can do this, then the government can do anything.”

In written comments for Baptist Press, Mohler said “both religious liberty and the sanctity of human life are on the line” in the case.

Southern Seminary and he are glad to join in the brief “as a way of stating our own convictions and standing with Christian brothers and sisters” before the Supreme Court, Mohler said. “Our great hope is that the Supreme Court will honor religious liberty and uphold the right of Christians and Christian institutions to be consistently pro-life. The stakes in this case are very high indeed.”

The cases before the high court are among 56 involving religious, nonprofit organizations that object to the rule issued in 2011 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS provided an exemption to the rule for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object. It issued an accommodation for religious nonprofits, but many of those ministries or institutions have found it unacceptable. They contend it still makes them complicit in covering contraceptives and potentially abortion-causing drugs.

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.

The brief tells the Supreme Court, “In light of the broad scope of the Christian faith and the Southern Baptist theological opposition to abortion, [the organizations in the cases] cannot, as a matter of doctrine and conscience, distribute abortion-inducing drugs and devices directly or indirectly by authorizing, obligating, or incentivizing their own insurers or 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.”

In the brief, the ERLC, IMB, Southern Seminary and Mohler point 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 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 restrictive means to burden a person’s religious exercise.

The Supreme Court has agreed to rule on whether the mandate violates RFRA.

GuideStone is exempt from the mandate and accompanying fines, but it serves ministries that face hefty penalties for failure to obey the rule.

Two of those — Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., and Oklahoma City-based Reaching Souls International — joined GuideStone in challenging the rule. Other Southern Baptist institutions involved in appeals being reviewed by the high court are Oklahoma Baptist University, East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University.

In August, the ERLC and IMB filed a friend-of-the-court brief to ask the Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision against the Texas universities. Southern Seminary and Mohler joined the ERLC and IMB in another August brief requesting the justices rule on the decision against GuideStone and the ministries it serves.

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.