WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Southern Baptist Convention's religious freedom entity has called for prayer in a U.S. Supreme Court case that promises to provide a landmark decision on church-state relations.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its president, Russell D. Moore, urged Southern Baptists and others to pray as the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments Tuesday (March 25) in a consolidated case involving challenges by two family-owned corporations to the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate. The justices' opinion on that rule, which requires employers to provide abortion-causing drugs and devices for their workers, will determine whether Christians and other religious adherents are free to exercise their beliefs in operating their businesses.
The case involves Hobby Lobby, the nationwide retail chain owned by evangelical Christians, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania business owned by pro-life Mennonites. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, and the Hahns, who own Conestoga Wood, contend the federal regulation violates their consciences and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law protecting religious liberty.
"This case will set the tone for the next hundred years of church-state jurisprudence in this country," Moore wrote at his blog Sunday (March 23). "This case will tell us whether we've bartered away a birthright paid for with our forebears' blood."
The federal rule in question -- issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement the 2010 health-care law -- mandates employers pay for coverage of contraceptives, including ones that can induce abortions, for their workers. Objections to the regulation failed to produce either a retraction from HHS or adequate conscience protections requested by religious liberty proponents.
Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood and about 300 others –- some for-profit corporations and some non-profit organizations -- combined to file 94 lawsuits against HHS. A major question the Supreme Court will consider is whether owners of for-profit companies can exercise their religion in the conduct of their businesses. They cannot, the Obama administration has argued during the legal challenge.
"The government is telling the Hobby Lobby owners, the Green family, that their free exercise rights aren't relevant because they run a corporation," Moore wrote in calling for prayer. The federal government also is telling the Hahns and others "that what's at stake is just the signing of some papers, the payment of some money," he said.
"Our government has treated free exercise of religion as though it were a tattered house standing in the way of a government construction of a railroad; there to be bought off or plowed out of the way, in the name of progress.
"The government wants us to sing from their hymn book, 'Onward, Sexual Revolutionaries,' but we can't do that," Moore wrote. "We love and respect our leaders, but when they set themselves up as overlords of the conscience, we must respectfully dissent."
In its March 23 post, the ERLC provided the following guide in its "Pray for Hobby Lobby" initiative:
-- "God wants people to be free to seek him and to serve him (Acts 17:24-28). Pray for a favorable outcome. The cherished principle of religious freedom should receive the strongest constitutional protection it deserves.
-- "God is Lord of the conscience, not government (Acts 5:29). Pray that the justices of the Supreme Court will understand the importance of the separation of the state from the church.
-- "God can give understanding to make sound decisions (Prov. 2:6-8). Pray for those who disagree with us, that God would help them understand and respect the consciences of people of faith.
-- "God can turn the hearts and minds of the justices to do his will (Prov. 21:1). Pray for the Supreme Court justices, that they would be receptive to the arguments being made passionately before them.
-- "God can guide the mind and speech (Exod. 4:11-12). Pray for lead attorney, Paul Clement, who will be arguing on behalf of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. Ask God to give him clarity and wisdom, for his arguments to be persuasiveness, and for God to give him favor before the justices."
The ERLC, which signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, desires freedom for all people, not just Christians, Moore said.
"One of the reasons we oppose this sort of incursion into free exercise is that we want neither to be oppressed nor to oppress others," he wrote. "We do not ask the government to bless our doctrinal convictions, or to impose them on others. We simply ask the government not to set itself up as lord of our consciences."
Moore's full post may be read here. The ERLC post may be accessed here.
A divided three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled against Conestoga Wood, saying for-profit, secular organizations "cannot engage in religious exercise." In ruling for Hobby Lobby, however, the 10th Circuit Court in Denver rejected the Obama administration's argument that protections under RFRA do not extend to for-profit companies. It ruled corporations "can be 'persons' exercising religion for purposes" of RFRA, which requires the government to have a compelling interest and to use narrow means to burden a person's religious exercise.
The HHS regulation requires coverage of such drugs as the "morning-after" pill Plan B, which possesses a post-fertilization mechanism that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers "ella," which -- in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 -- can even act after implantation to end the life of the child
While some conscientious objectors to the HHS rule oppose underwriting all contraceptives, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood protest paying only for abortion-causing drugs.
Hobby Lobby's Green family has said it will not comply with the mandate if it loses in court. The arts and crafts retail chain of more than 600 stores could face fines totaling $1.3 million a day.
The Hahn family, which owns Conestoga Wood, has been living under the mandate since its group health plan was renewed in January 2013. Refusal to abide by the mandate could cost the family an estimated $95,000 a day. Conestoga Wood is a wholesale manufacturer of kitchen cabinet parts.
The 10th Circuit case is Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, while the Third Circuit case is Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius. Kathleen Sebelius is the HHS secretary.
The high court is expected to issue a decision before the end of its term in late June or early July.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).