President Obama’s Legacy on Religious Liberty

January 20, 2017 | Andrew T. Walker and Josh Wester
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Assessing the outgoing president’s policies over the past eight years, Andrew T. Walker and Josh Wester see a consistently “callous” attitude toward religious freedom, especially when it came to legal issues surrounding same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Regarding the latter, they write:

During the implementation of the ACA, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a mandate . . . requiring most employer health plans to provide “all FDA-approved forms of contraception,” including some that act as abortifacients. Despite being aware of the conscience issues created by such a rule, HHS allowed only the narrowest of exemptions for certain types of religious employers. The protests of business owners, religious leaders of various faiths, and advocates of freedom fell on deaf ears. The administration’s unyielding commitment to this HHS mandate revealed its animus toward religious freedom and ultimately resulted in two very consequential and public defeats for the president’s agenda [at the Supreme Court]. . . .

Among those seeking relief from the oppressive mandate were the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order dedicated to caring for the elderly poor. After years of bureaucratic and legal strife—to say nothing of the threat of million-dollar fines for conscientious dissent—the administration ultimately acknowledged that this mandate was not the least restrictive means of furthering a government interest in providing contraceptives—an unnecessary outcome.

From the start, the administration should have established compromise measures to ensure health coverage for contraceptives without needlessly burdening religious exercise. But such intransigence only proved the larger point. For the Obama administration, whatever the value of religious freedom might be, it could easily be subjugated to a higher, more progressive, ideal.

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