Justices order court to reconsider ruling on abortion mandate

WASHINGTON (BP) – The U.S. Supreme Court signaled Monday (Nov. 1) its dissatisfaction with a lower court’s ruling on a state abortion mandate and ordered it to reconsider that decision in light of the justices’ unanimous opinion in support of religious freedom earlier this year.

In the order, the high court nullified a New York court ruling against a Roman Catholic diocese. The diocese had challenged a state requirement that employers fund abortions in workers’ health insurance plans. The justices instructed the state court to reconsider its decision in light of their June opinion in Fulton v. Philadelphia.

In that 9-0 ruling, the high court upheld a faith-based adoption and foster-care agency’s right to carry out its ministry according to its religious convictions. The justices agreed the city of Philadelphia violated the free exercise of religion by refusing to contract with Catholic Social Services because it does not place children with same-sex couples based on its beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) welcomed the Supreme Court’s order, which came five months after it joined with other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the justices to review a decision by the New York court they described as a violation of religious autonomy.

The ERLC-endorsed brief argued “the government has no right to force churches and religious ministries to violate their consciences and pay for abortions,” said Chelsea Sobolik, the entity’s director of public policy, in written comments.

“We are hopeful that as the lower courts reconsider this, they will do so acknowledging that, like the justices agreed on in Fulton, once a government grants some exceptions, they cannot deny exemptions for religious objectors,” she said.

The high court’s order vacated a decision by the Appellate Division, Supreme Court of New York, Third Judicial Department that upheld a 2017 regulation that requires even some religious organizations to fund “medically necessary” abortions in their employees’ health insurance. No definition is provided in the state rule for “medically necessary,” but other documents seem to indicate it covers abortions in cases of rape, incest and fetal conditions such as Down syndrome, according to the ERLC brief.

While churches and some other religious entities are exempt from the mandate, faith groups that practice a mission beyond their membership or serve people beyond their own adherents, such as meeting the needs of the poor, must abide by the rule.

Becket, which is helping represent the Diocese of Albany, is grateful the Supreme Court “won’t allow the New York Court of Appeals’ bad ruling to be the last word on the right of religious ministries to serve New Yorkers of all faiths,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel with the religious liberty advocacy organization.

“Punishing faith groups for ministering to their local communities is cruel and counterproductive,” Baxter said in a written statement. “New York clearly learned nothing from the federal government’s own attempts to force nuns to pay for contraceptives and is now needlessly threatening charities because they believe in the dignity and humanity of every human person.”

The Supreme Court upheld the religious freedom of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns who serve the elderly poor, against efforts to require them to abide by a 2011 federal regulation implementing a new health care law. That rule required employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions, or face devastating fines.

The Obama administration provided an exemption to the 2011 regulation for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object. In friend-of-the-court briefs, the ERLC, GuideStone Financial Resources and other Southern Baptist entities opposed the abortion/contraception mandate and its failure to protect organizations that object to the requirement. GuideStone and the ministries it represents won in their legal challenge to the mandate.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in May, the ERLC and five other religious organizations requested the Supreme Court to review the New York court’s decision against the Catholic diocese. They said in the brief the requirement and its limited exemption “are void under the First Amendment because they trespass into petitioners’ religious autonomy.”

“Centuries-old faith traditions and tens of millions of their adherents consider terminating the life of an unborn child to be a grave evil,” the brief said. “Dragooning religious organizations into becoming complicit in abortion is no mere health-and-safety regulation: it is an intolerable invasion of religious autonomy.”

The abortion-coverage mandate and its restrictive exemption invite the state to an “excessive entanglement” with faith matters that conflicts with the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion, the brief said.

“No law – even one evidently aimed at protecting religious organizations – may violate the ban on excessive entanglement,” according to the brief. “Since New York’s religious exemption requires such entanglement, it is void.”

Also joining in the brief were The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy of the Anglican Church in North America.

Other faith groups targeted by the abortion-coverage mandate include the First Bible Baptist Church of Hilton, N.Y., which performs outreach to the community through its youth ministry, Becket reported.

The case is Roman Catholic Diocese v. Emami.

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