By / Dec 10

Religious organizations are critical partners with the federal government in its efforts to meet vital needs in communities across the country. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) published a final rule, to ensure that religious institutions receiving federal contracts are provided a religious exemption to discrimination laws. The final rule is significant because it protects the rights of religious organizations to operate in ways consistent with their deeply held beliefs while allowing them to receive similar contracts and funding as their secular counterparts.

Exemptions and discrimination

After the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which is part of the DOL, published its final rule regarding religious exemption on Tuesday, critics immediately attacked the measure as a “license to discriminate.” Such accusations are, of course, ridiculous. But the fact that these criticisms routinely miss the mark has done little to stop opponents of conscience freedom from speaking against efforts to uphold these constitutionally protected rights.

According to the DOL’s website, “This rule will encourage the full and equal participation of religious organizations as federal contractors. Religious organizations, many of them small nonprofits, provide such essential services as feeding the hungry, supporting refugees, and educating our nation’s students.” In light of this rule, the religious impulses that guide faith-based organizations will not have to be suppressed should they be the recipients of federal contracts.

Rather than targeting those in the LGBT community or any other subset of people, measures such as the DOL’s final rule are aimed at those who are motivated by sincerely held convictions to carry out their work. Our nation’s robust protections for religious freedom guarantee far more than the freedom to worship on Sundays or to privately observe the tenets of one’s faith. These things are protected, but in addition, Americans are also guaranteed the right to practice their religion in the public square. 

Discriminating against religion

If Catholics are motivated by their faith to open an adoption agency, they should be allowed to operate the agency according to their beliefs. If a Jewish group is compelled to open a day school, they should likewise be allowed to carry out that work in ways consistent with their faith. And if a Muslim community is motivated to start a program to mentor children in the inner city, they should enjoy the same freedoms to perform that work. 

While these freedoms are protected by the First Amendment, the benefit of the DOL’s final rule is that it guarantees religious organizations, where applicable, are eligible to receive federal contracts and funding without sacrificing the very convictions that motivated them to perform their work in the first place. Speaking about the rule, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) noted, “The religious exemption allows religious contractors not only to prefer in employment individuals who share their religion, but also to condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor.” 

When it comes to discrimination, measures such as this actually guarantee that religious organizations are not punished by the government on account of their beliefs. A secular entity that performs the same service as a religious entity should not be eligible to receive taxpayer dollars simply because they lack any religious motivation. The DOL’s rule is not about denying the rights of anyone. It is about safeguarding the constitutional rights of millions of religious Americans.

Serving others

Serving others has been at the heart of the Christian faith since its inception. James, the brother of Jesus, described religion that is pure and undefiled before God as “caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). The apostle Paul reminds us that as he preached the gospel of justification by faith alone, he was always mindful to remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). And Jesus, early in his public ministry, announced his calling by unrolling the scroll and declaring, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Considering that foundation, it is no surprise that Christians, as well as other people of faith, are committed to service and acts of charity for the good of their neighbors. This rule from the DOL on religious exemptions not only protects the rights of religious organizations, but ensures that countless Americans will continue to benefit from the work and ministries of these faith-based entities in the future.

By / Mar 25

As oral arguments begin in Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the HHS abortifacient mandate, we might ask what the Founders would think about this case? On one hand, they could not have imagined it. The public sale of government-approved contraceptives and abortifacients (and to be fair, that of most modern medicines of any kind) would have been unfathomable in 1776. And the notion of a government requiring businesses to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage? Such an idea could never have occurred to them.

But part of the debate would have struck them as quite familiar: the concept that certain laws might require exemptions for those who objected on religious grounds. For the Founders, the most common cases of such exemptions involved Quakers. The Quakers were one of the most radical groups emerging from the English Reformation, and in the 1680s they founded Pennsylvania. Quakers were pacifists and refused military service. They also objected to the swearing of oaths, a common practice in courts and in the seating of political officials.

The Quakers’ opposition to oaths was based on a plain reading of Matthew 5:33-37, in which Jesus said “Swear not at all…But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (KJV) Early Americans assumed that requiring an oath for legislators or participants in court cases would help guarantee honesty and integrity, but those requirements functionally banned Quakers from accessing some of the most basic institutions of government.

By the eighteenth century, many American colonies had begun to enact exemptions for Quakers so they would not have to swear oaths. Typically this involved allowing objectors to “affirm” that they would tell the truth or do their duty, a compromise which satisfied Quakers’ objections. This policy became so entrenched in American law that the Constitution’s oath of office for the president takes it into account: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” According to the Judiciary Act of 1789, judges had to swear (or affirm) to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, concluding with the petition, “so help me God.” But the act also noted that the “words, ‘so help me God,’ shall be omitted in all cases where an affirmation is admitted instead of an oath.”

Quakers were also afforded exemptions from military service, and along with Baptists, they asked for and sometimes received relief from the religious taxes imposed by many of the colonies to support established denominations, usually either the Anglican or Congregationalist Church. Often the colonies would require dissenters like the Baptists to produce a certificate showing that they were really active in a dissenting congregation and not just trying to avoid the tax. But that system was clumsy, and Baptists in the Revolutionary era resented having to do anything to get out of paying a tax they considered a violation of conscience in any case.

The Baptists’ opposition to state establishments of religion, and to the exemption certificates, set the stage for their great campaign in the 1770s and 1780s against religious establishments of any kind. That campaign helped to end most official state support for particular denominations. Along with prominent political leaders such as James Madison, Baptist pressure helped ensure a national commitment to full religious freedom, as articulated in the First Amendment.

The great Baptist champion of religious liberty, John Leland, a staunch ally of Madison and Thomas Jefferson, acknowledged that religious dissenters could not be allowed to “disturb the peace” and harm fellow citizens under the cover of conscience objections. However, he insisted that governments which really valued religious liberty should afford exemptions to laws that “prevent liberty of conscience,…because men cannot stretch their consciences like a nose of wax.” Sincere religious non-conformists should not be treated like common vagrants, he said.

Extending exemptions for cases of religious conscience is a longstanding part of America’s effort to ensure both the rule of law and real religious liberty. Secularist advocates today will argue that religious freedom does not extend beyond the walls of congregations, but that was not the view of the Founders. Religious liberty was public liberty.

Secularist advocates will similarly argue that we cannot account for the messiness of religious liberty claims – we can never judge the validity of the many possible conscience claims, they say. The public good (meaning, in the case of the HHS Mandate, broad access to health care, including abortifacients) must trump dissenting religious concerns. But again, the Founders realized that government would have to accommodate sincere religious objections, even when majorities in a legislature believed that a law served the public good.

Any reasonable observer can see that the Green family of Hobby Lobby (as well as their co-litigants Conestoga Wood) has a sincere religious objection to providing abortifacient coverage to employees. Their convictions represent an honest, longstanding objection to abortion held by many other Americans. The HHS Mandate, conversely, represents an abrupt, intrusive requirement of the national government that has obvious ramifications for the consciences of many American employers. Trying to ram this policy through, without offering substantive conscience exemptions, would have struck the Founders as ungenerous and coercive.