Hey, LA Times, there's more to HHS fight than Hobby Lobby

First things first: I have to admit that I almost choked on my diet cherry cola when I read the double-decker headline on this Los Angeles Times news feature about the next round of cultural warfare at the U.S. Supreme Court. Ready? You have been warned:

In new term, Supreme Court may steer to right on key social issues

The Supreme Court's conservative bloc has a clear chance to shift the law to the right on abortion, contraception, religion and campaign funding

Now, faithful GetReligion readers will know that -- as a pro-life Democrat -- I am not pleased when journalists slap simplistic religious or political labels on people. In particular, it is often important to separate religious doctrine from political beliefs. When covering Republicans, it is also crucial to grasp that there are people who are conservative on economic and openly political issues, while veering to the left on moral and cultural issues. This familiar name leaps to mind: Justice Anthony Kennedy.

So I understand that, on some issues, the current high court does contain five people who from time to time form a "conservative bloc." But does this court really contain a "conservative bloc" when addressing moral, cultural and religious issues?

To understand my main problem with the content of this story, it helps to see the framing. Let's get started:

If the justices on the right agree among themselves, they could free wealthy donors to give far more to candidates and parties and clear the way for exclusively Christian prayers at local government events.

Wait, what's with the "clear the way" language? Isn't the issue whether citizens, under the First Amendment, can CONTINUE to offer prayers that contain exclusively Christian images and language? I mean, I hate to break this to folks on the left coast, but lots of folks have been using Trinitarian language in public prayers in the American heartland for a long, long time. This is news? The issue is whether the state has the power to forbid, control or at the very least edit this form of speech.

Back to the story's overture and the passage that sure as heckfire caught my attention:

By next spring, the justices are likely to revisit part of President Obama's healthcare law to decide a religious-rights challenge to the requirement that large private employers provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives. Dozens of employers who run for-profit companies have sued, contending that providing health insurance that includes a full range of contraceptives violates their religious beliefs.

Yes, it is possible that the court will take a second look at the fine details in that healthcare law. We know that because one of its most liberal members dropped a hint about that in her written opinion in support of the "individual mandate" plank in the Health and Human Services regulations.

As Catholic News Service noted at the time:

Challengers of the Obama administration's contraception mandate may have been handed a surprising advantage by the Supreme Court's liberal wing, in its partial dissent on the health care reform law.

“A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, (or) interfered with the free exercise of religion,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a June 28 opinion supporting the law's “individual mandate.”

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the religious-liberty implications of the mandate may reach the court again. This may be news to the Los Angeles Times team, but not to people who closely follow church-state currents here inside the DC Beltway.

But here is what surprised me in that summary of the facts. I am aware that Hobby Lobby, a company owned by evangelical Christians, and a few other for-profit companies are challenging the HHS regulations requiring them to fund benefits that clearly violate their religious beliefs. This is an important issue: Does a person's constitutional right to the free exercise of religion end when they own a for-profit company?

That said, I was not aware that "dozens of employers who run for-profit companies" have taken this issue to court. Several, for sure. But dozens?

Now, is it possible that the newspaper's editors have confused this important issue linked to "for-profit" institutions with the tsunami of conflicts, and court cases, tied to the rights of non-profit religious schools and ministries? These cases, in particular, are linked to this language in the mandates:

Group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, and group health insurance coverage in connection with such plans, are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A religious employer is one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii). ...

In other words, the minute a school or a ministry starts working with people of other faiths, it risks being viewed as "not religious enough" for this exemption. There have been dozens of lawsuits filed by colleges (some linked to my employer, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) and non-profit ministries, including some that are rooted in the practice of a specific faith and others that are quite nondenominational.

Thinking of this as a matter of public relations for the White House, it is one thing to threaten the economic future and the religious liberty of rich evangelicals who run a for-profit company like Hobby Lobby. It is something else to be poised to crush the work of nuns who insist that their Catholic faith requires them to help the non-Catholic poor as well as the needy in their own flock.

As I wrote not that long ago, journalists could end up covering The United States of America vs. The Little Sisters of the Poor.

Do the folks at the Los Angeles Times know about the non-profit ministry side of this looming court clash, or with that "dozens" reference are they assuming that this is all about the rights of for-profit business folks?

Just asking.

The court may choose to address both of those issues in one case or it may separate them. It's hard to cover that issue if you don't know the difference.

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