A federal court ruling issued yesterday which says the government cannot impose massive IRS fines on religious ministries for following their faith has now set the stage for cases such as the Little Sisters of the Poor to be heard at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are representing many clients in a protracted battle over the government’s mandate that all employers provide birth control and sterilization coverage to their female employees even if it violates their religious beliefs.
Yesterday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on the side of religious institutions: "When the government imposes a direct monetary penalty to coerce conduct that violates religious belief, '[t]here has never been a question that the government 'imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion.'"
The ruling, which disagrees with those of other federal courts, drastically increases the likelihood of a Supreme Court review of the HHS Mandate. Pending cases now involve the Little Sisters of the Poor, EWTN, Houston Baptist and East Texas Baptist Universities and other religious ministries. Yesterday’s ruling specifically protects Dordt College, CNS Ministries, and others from having to comply with the HHS mandate.
"Fifteen federal judges now agree that the government has no right to dictate or second guess a person’s sincere religious beliefs," said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a statement released yesterday. "The government keeps telling the Supreme Court ‘Move along, nothing important here’ in hopes that the Court will ignore this crucial issue. But with today's decisions, the Court will have great reason to decide this issue in the next term."
Further, although the government argued that the ministries were being paranoid and that it was simply asking them for signatures on a piece of meaningless paper, the court both refused to second guess the ministries' beliefs and saw through the government's argument: "We need look no further than the government's own litigation behavior to gauge the importance of [the government's forms] in the regulatory scheme." If it was just a meaningless form, "there would be no need to insist on [the ministries'] compliance with" the government's demands.
"The government has many ways to achieve its goals without trampling over religious freedom," Windham said. "Today's decision correctly protects the rights of religious ministries serving the most vulnerable in our society."
The Becket Fund continues to lead the charge against the unconstitutional HHS mandate, winning a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In addition to the aforementioned cases, seven other petitions challenging the HHS mandate have already been filed at the Supreme Court and more are expected.
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