Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Opinion

Florida joined lawsuit to uphold religious liberty

Editor's note: Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi replies to Monday's editorial, "Bondi's needless crusade.''

Recent assertions that the Obama administration's controversial Health and Human Services mandate is merely about guaranteeing women's access to contraceptive services are completely unfounded. The mandate infringes on religious liberty, which is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution — the same amendment that protects freedom of speech. The federal government cannot dictate that a religious institution must violate its religious beliefs. My role in the recently filed lawsuit is about fulfilling my duty to uphold the Constitution and defend Americans' freedom.

There is no ongoing attempt, by government or by anyone else, to deny women access to contraception. If there were such an effort, I would vigorously oppose it.

The issue posed by the HHS mandate is different: whether the federal government can compel an employer to provide its employees health insurance that covers abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception, even if doing so violates the employer's religious beliefs. It's clear to me that the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) prohibit such compulsion. That's why, when Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning contacted me about a multistate lawsuit challenging the HHS mandate, I wholeheartedly supported the fight for religious liberty.

Our legal argument against the HHS mandate is straightforward. It starts with the undisputed fact that compliance with the mandate would force certain religious employers — including some schools, hospitals, charities and social service providers — to violate their religious beliefs. We then consider that undisputed fact in light of the applicable requirements of the First Amendment and RFRA. Those laws provide that a government regulation that substantially burdens the free exercise of religion must serve a "compelling interest" and use means that are least restrictive of religious liberty. Applying that test here, we reach the inescapable conclusion that the HHS mandate fails miserably. There's no compelling interest in the mandate, because contraceptive services are already widely available; and, even if the government has an interest in ensuring even more access to those services, it could avoid any infringement of religious liberty by itself paying for the services directly.

Recent criticisms of my office's involvement in the multistate lawsuit don't even try to rebut the legal merits of our case. Instead, many choose to defend the mandate by belittling the religious beliefs of Catholics, using rhetoric that is — at the least — insensitive. I, a Methodist, have been accused of embracing "the most narrow thinking in the Catholic Church." I find it disturbing that not only has public discourse included judgment of the merits of a religious group's beliefs, but also it uses that prejudice as a way of justifying an act of the government infringing on religious freedom. Every American should find this rhetoric alarming — preventing religious intolerance is precisely why we have the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Any fair-minded person can see that people of all faiths — and people of no faith — have an interest in upholding our nation's legal protection of religious freedom. Indeed, at a recent congressional oversight hearing on the issue, a rabbi and representatives of several Protestant denominations appeared jointly with Catholics to testify in opposition to the HHS mandate. These individuals rightly understood that a common commitment to protecting religious liberty far transcends any particular view on the morality of contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

As attorney general, standing up to the federal government in defense of Floridians' constitutional rights isn't optional — it's my duty. The claim that "the Catholic Church can fight its own battles" is a stunning one. The First Amendment also protects the freedom of speech. If ever anyone told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that they could not publish an editorial, I would fight just as hard to defend their freedom. I will not stand idly by while our constitutional rights are violated.

Pam Bondi is Florida's attorney general.

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