by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
May 9, 2014
That was the essence of the rhetorical question posed by attorney Noel Francisco, counsel for the D.C. Archdiocese, to the 3-judge panel hearing oral arguments yesterday at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the consolidated cases of Priests for Life v. Sebelius and Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. v. Sebelius. The plaintiff organizations in these cases object on religious grounds to being forced by law to provide coverage to certain contraceptives — contraceptives that would otherwise be required under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and associated regulations. The organizations are challenging the government’s requirement that they “certify” they have objections to these contraceptives by signing a form, thus entitling them to an “accommodation” from the law’s scheme under which employers must ensure their insurers provide ACA-compliant coverage. The signed form then triggers government coverage of such contraceptives for the employees of the objecting organizations.
In the organizations’ view, however, this scheme forcing them to play a part in the provision of such contraceptives compels them by law to directly violate Catholic Church teaching by making them complicit in the moral wrong of abortion, and thus constitutes a “substantial burden” on their religious practice. This injury led them to bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, under which the government can only “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” when its regulation “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The substantial burden still exists even if all the organizations had to do was sign a form certifying they had such objections. It was not the act of picking up the pen and signing the paper that constituted a substantial burden, Mr. Francisco told the judges, but rather the crushing weight of conscience accompanying such an action which violated the very core of their being. It was not the relative ease or difficulty of a specific act which led to the burden, but rather the crushing moral and spiritual compulsion of knowing one is complicit in a moral wrong with the exercise of that one, small, physical act.
Enter Mr. Francisco’s question from my title here. Just like his clients, who feel compelled to violate beliefs going to the core of who they are even by the small act of signing a piece of paper, a Jewish business owner who believes his religion demands he rest on the Sabbath is compelled to violate his conscience when forced to work on Saturday by the small, bur significant, physical act of flipping on the light switch at his business. He is not substantially burdened merely by the physical act of flipping on the switch, but rather by the heavy weight of conscience telling him he is violating all he lives for once he accomplishes that one little flick of his finger.