As part of President Obama's health law, his Department of Health and Human Services required that employers pay for health insurance coverage covering all methods of birth control. Since certain of those methods can terminate human life after conception, some religious employers argued that the mandate violates their right to the free exercise of religion. That right is protected not only by the First Amendment to the Constitution but also by statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Today, the Supreme Court held that Americans do not give up this protection when they operate a business organized as a closely held corporation.
We read daily about government interference with religion. That news might not be surprising in places such as Sudan, China or Iran. But when the news is about our own government, we should be especially alarmed. Religious freedom has been sewn into our country's very fiber since before it was founded.
One religious society after another came to these shores not only to believe as they chose, but to act and to live according to those beliefs. That is why the principle enshrined in the First Amendment is the "exercise of religion," which encompasses both belief and activity.
Congress enacted RFRA almost unanimously two decades ago to put that same protection into federal statute. When he signed the bill into law, President Clinton acknowledged that religious freedom is "perhaps the most precious of all American liberties." That's why I helped lead the effort to pass RFRA. Along the way, Republicans and Democrats were united on one fundamental principle, that the right of all Americans to the free exercise of their religion should be equally protected by the same rigorous legal standard. We refused to give an advantage to some religious claims or to prevent others from being considered.
RFRA also requires that future legislation must comply with this standard. In other words, when Congress passes and the executive branch implements laws, they must take the right to religious exercise into account. The Obama administration ignored this requirement when it developed the Affordable Care Act, forcing religious employers to choose between exercising their faith and paying draconian fines.
That's what the case before the Supreme Court was about. Did Congress mean what it said in RFRA? Does government need a truly "compelling" reason to interfere with the exercise of religion? Did Congress mean that the religious freedom of all Americans, individually or collectively, must be equally protected?
Some have suggested that today's case, brought by family owned craft stores and a wood specialties company, amount to nothing more than a fight over birth control. It is much more important than that. It is about whether the political agenda of some will trump the religious liberty of all.
In the 20 years since RFRA became law, some have asked whether RFRA is still needed. Is religious freedom really at risk in America? This cases shows that it is. The notion underlying the Obama administration's mandate that religious freedom belongs only to some, and, even then, only in private, defies our nation's traditions, our laws and our Constitution.
The majority of people around the world live in countries where religious freedom is severely limited. Governments regulate who may express their religious faith, when they may practice the tenets of their faith and where and how they may act according to their religious convictions. That is not America's heritage and it must not be our future.
Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is a member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was one of the authors of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and submitted a legal brief in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases.