US Supreme Court's landmark decisions support faith

US Supreme Court's landmark decisions support faith

AD2000 Report

In three landmark judgments handed down late in June, the US Supreme Court has shifted the balance of US Constitutional interpretation in favour of religious belief, and against laws and government programs which undermine the rights of freedom of conscience and speech embedded in the US Constitution.

The same issues are being fought in Australia, with the attacks on freedom of conscience of medical and health practitioners regarding abortion, and laws which ban peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion clinics.

While the US Constitution is quite different from Australia's, the US judgments will be closely watched because of the parallels, and because Australian courts have from time to time referred to US precedents.

The US Supreme Court judgments will also influence the climate of opinion in Australia. In all cases, the Obama Administration has intervened to support laws and programs which restrict religious liberty.

Perhaps the most widely publicised case involved Christian family-owned companies which took action against provisions in the Obama government's Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Under this Act, regulations were issued by the US Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which required businesses to take out health insurance for their employees covering the cost of 20 contraceptives approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

These are known as the HHS mandates.

Limited exemptions

The Obama Administration had exempted churches from the legislation in an effort to get it through Congress, where most Republicans and some Democrats were opposed. It did not, however, exempt religious organisations or businesses.

At issue in this case was whether owner-operated businesses and religious organisations were obliged to comply with the regulations which violated their conscientious beliefs.

Organisations which failed to comply with the HHS mandates were subject to draconian fines of thousands of dollars a day, or millions of dollars a year.

Several small businesses refused to comply with them, and took legal action to protect their religious and conscientious beliefs.

By majority vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the HHS mandates violated the rights of freedom of belief, as set down in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. This law required those who asserted that they were acting in accordance with a religious belief to establish it in court but once established, the Act promised to protect their beliefs.

The Supreme Court established the right of family-run businesses to conduct their affairs in accord with their religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life, and against a government which sought to override those beliefs.

One immediate consequence was that a lower court immediately issued an injunction to a religious organisation, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which had also refused to comply with the HHS Mandates.

EWTN, the largest religious media network in the world, was founded to uphold the Catholic faith and objects to providing or facilitating these products and practices which violate Church teaching.

Without this temporary relief, the network would have been subjected to more than $35,000 per day in penalties for refusing to comply with the HHS contraception mandate.

Family and pro-life organisations strongly supported the Supreme Court decision, but radical feminist organisations and the Obama Administration condemned it.

The Supreme Court decision was another blow to the Obama Administration's health care reforms which have been haunted by problems in administration.

Speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehmer, said: "Today's decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of big government. The President's health care law remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy."

In a separate decision a few days earlier, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that made it a crime for Eleanor McCullen and other pro-life counsellors to peacefully offer pamphlets to women about abortion alternatives and the humanity of the unborn child within 35 feet of an abortion facility.

In this case, all nine Justices agreed that the state law against the pro-life counsellors was unconstitutional on the ground that it restricts their rights to freedom of expression more than is necessary to serve the state's asserted interests. A similar law is in place in Tasmania.

Pro-lifers' challenge

In a separate decision, the US Supreme Court ruled in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus that the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life organisation, could pursue their challenge to an Ohio election law that criminalises alleged "false statements" about a candidate's voting record.

The pro-life group was censored and threatened with criminal prosecution for publicly stating that a congressman's vote for Obamacare was a vote for tax-funded abortion.

The congressman lost his seat in the 2010 mid-term elections.

The Bioethics Defence Fund filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court confirming the truth of the pro-life group's statements, and listed a number of ways that the Affordable Care Act authorised and subsidised elective abortion with public funding.

The pro-lifers' claim that the Ohio law is unconstitutional is now proceeding in the US Sixth Circuit.

These cases mark a turning point from over 40 years of judicial interpretation since Roe v Wade which legalised abortion in the US, and turned it into a constitutional right. These cases do not reverse that judgment, but protect the rights of those defending the most defenceless in society from assault by governments.

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