Zubik v. Burwell - Religious Autonomy or Moral Grandstanding - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

To what extent do faith-based non-profit organizations have the right to determine which federal labor requirements infringe on their religious autonomy?

This is the fundamental question that lies at the heart of Zubik v. Burwell, a high profile case which challenges the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer’s health care plans cover the costs of birth control for their employees. In May, an eight-member supreme court steered clear of making any ruling on the matter, which has evolved into a platform of moral grandstanding by religious organizations.

As is the case with a number of federal labor requirements, non-profit religious organizations have been exempted by the government from participating in a mandate which stands at odd with the requisite demands of their faith.

Essentially, the government has provided such religious-based employers with a simple solution to any moral objections by which they may notify their insurer or the government in writing of their dilemma, after which the government itself will step in and assume the costs of contraception coverage at no expense to employers.

Problem solved?

Not by a long shot. In spite of an apparent effort by the government to preserve religious autonomy while still protecting the rights of women, religious non-profits are now arguing that the provision does not go far enough to accommodate their objections, insisting that the government’s plan would still make them somehow complicit in their employees’ “sinful” use of contraception.

Thus far, however, eight federal courts of appeals have rejected this claim, finding that such a minor requirement did not place a substantial burden on the objectors’ religious freedom. After all, they reasoned, the whole point of the government’s plan was to remove any potential burden on a religious employer.

Is it possible for religious organizations to overstep in taking advantage of their arguably unique status? Moreover, at what point does a legal proceeding begin to move away from preserving the rights of citizens and become a platform for social evangelism?

One argument might be that a religious organization, operated solely for the purpose of preserving the principals of its faith, is by its nature a mouthpiece for its views on morality, and that those exemptions already provided by the government exist to preserve such an organization’s ability to make its ideals known in public forum. If this is true, then there would in theory be no limits to religious autonomy with respect to the law, be it labor or otherwise.

On the other hand, from a purely legal, secular perspective, there are limits to the claim that any harm is being done to a religious entity’s freedom to pursue its moral agenda, both as a civic institution and as an employer. It seems that the exact definition of those limits was precisely what the attorneys representing the interests of these non-profits originations hoped to gain from a Supreme Court decision.

In avoidance of this, the court determined instead that both sides’ responses indicated that a compromise was possible. Without weighing in on the merits of the litigation, the court sent the lawsuits back to the federal appeals courts and told them to give the parties “an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.’”

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your take on the difference between religious non-profits and for-profits being exempted from the birth control mandate, so please take a minute to share your thoughts with me on Facebook or on Twitter.

Carlos Gamino