Congratulations are in order for the Catholic Church, whose archdioceses in America went to federal court today to challenge the Obama administration on the contraception mandates. Something like a dozen federal lawsuits were filed against the administration by something on the order of 43 plaintiffs, including the Archdiocese of New York, among others, and the crown jewel in Catholic education in America, Notre Dame.* It seems the liberal institutions within the Catholic world have come together with the conservative ones to stand up for the rights of religious Catholics — and by extension, the rest of us — to be free of government mandates in respect of their religion.
We liked the way the issue was framed in the brief for the Archdiocese of New York, which opened by noting what the lawsuit is not about as well as what it is about. It is, the brief said, “not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Those services are freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the Government itself from making them more widely available.” It went on to complain that the government nonetheless “seeks to require Plaintiffs — all Catholic entities — to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing, paying for, and/or facilitating access to those products and services.”
The church seeks shelter under both the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from making any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and a statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA was passed in 1993 — by an overwhelming voice vote in the House and a 97 to three vote in the Senate — with the aim of protecting free exercise. It requires strict scrutiny of laws, and prohibits the government from substantially burdening “a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” The law is one of the important civil rights measures of the modern era.