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Viewpoint: Politics and SDA Religious Liberty


In a statement posted on June 30, 2014, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America announced that it is “encouraged” by the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. This week, the online Adventist Review published a document prepared by a General Conference Associate General Counsel that provided the underlying support for the June 30 statement. In the Hobby Lobby case, two closely held, for-profit companies, Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Woods Specialties, sought exemption from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirements regarding the inclusion of birth control coverage in the health insurance policies available to employees. The Court held that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) closely held, for-profit companies do not have to comply with the birth control requirements.

The question arises: Should the Church have posted the June 30 statement about the Supreme Court ruling? In my opinion, the answer clearly is no.

Although the online supporting document asserted that the “The Church will continue its non-partisan approach to religious liberty,” in my view, based on the June 30 statement and the online supporting document, it is just too easy to conclude that the Church’s statement constitutes a partisan Republican response.

Relevant provisions of the RFRA state that: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion … [unless the government] demonstrates that application of the burden to the person — (1) furthers a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The Hobby Lobby controlling opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito. The five Republican-appointed Justices supported the opinion and the four Justices appointed by Democrats opposed the opinion. This is reflective of the divide between Republicans and Democrats in our country and in our Church. The reaction to the Hobby Lobby case quickly provided a good example of the divide and the online supporting document certainly recognized this by stating that the Hobby Lobby decision “not only divided the country, but also the church.”

The June 30 statement and the online supporting document reflect the views of many SDA Republicans by concluding with respect to birth control that companies not only have religious liberty interests, but that they trump all other interests. Consequently, with respect to birth control, Church leaders and many SDA Republicans conclude that owners should be able to manage companies in accordance with their religious beliefs. Furthermore, based on the June 30 statement and the analyses in the online supporting document, it is clear that Church leaders supported the arguments and the findings in the Alito opinion.

Many SDA Democrats would defend the dissent written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The dissent included arguments to support the conclusion made by many SDA Democrats that religious liberty rights should apply to “persons” (individuals) but not to companies. There are a number of other arguments, consistent with the Ginsberg dissent, that are commonly made by SDA Democrats about the Hobby Lobby decision. For example, many SDA Democrats argue that the decision represents a typical Republican action to support owners, but not workers and, in this case, includes the unwarranted element of allowing owner involvement in health care decisions of female workers. As another example, many SDA Democrats argue that the decision may provide the basis for elimination of life-saving health care coverage, such as elimination of coverage for blood transfusions by owners who believe that blood transfusions are prohibited by scripture.

Church leaders understand that the Church is divided politically and had to know that the June 30 statement likely would increase the divide. One would think that the divide would cause Church leaders to tread carefully and enunciate views that support one side against the other only after concluding that there is a great need to do so. In my view, Church leaders have not made the case that the Hobby Lobby decision supports some interest or principle so significant that it would rise above the ruckus that should have been anticipated. Moreover, the June 30 statement noted that “The Seventh-day Adventist Church … does not object to providing the methods of contraception at issue … and has fully complied with this provision of the … [ACA] for its U.S. based employees.”

In other words, the Church does not have a “dog in the fight.” This alone should have been considered a powerful reason for Church leaders to refrain from publicly embracing the Republican position in the highly controversial Hobby Lobby decision.

Thomas O. Gessel, J.D., is a former Director of the Office of Regulatory Law in the Office of General Counsel at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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