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March 3, 2013

Guest Editorial: ‘No law’ means ‘no law’

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...

What is it about the phrase ”no law” that is difficult to understand? Justice Hugo Black of the U.S. Supreme Court passionately defended the First Amendment of the Constitution against all who argued that “no law” had a conditional clause attached that allowed exceptions when needed to advance a political agenda. Black kept the Constitution with him in all deliberations and ruthlessly reminded judges and litigants of the First Amendment’s clear language.

Now, the Department of Health and Human Services has decided, contrary to the First Amendment, to compel religious groups to yield to a contraceptive mandate that violates their faith. Religious freedom is again under attack.

The U.S. government has promulgated a law — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — that purports to cure health care delivery ills. The law may meet those goals. But, on the way to implementation, religious entities have discovered that it orders free contraception and sterilization to employees even if the order violates religious beliefs. The Constitution’s authors, who experienced religious oppression, resolved to check similar oppression forever when writing the First Amendment.

The issue is now in the courts. Among the cases, the William M. Grote family of Indiana and the Cyril Krote family of Illinois have sought declaratory and injunctive relief to block the contraceptive mandate. Both families are Catholic and operate family businesses in accordance with their Catholic faith. On Jan. 30, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago prevented HHS from enforcing the contraceptive mandate while the litigation is pending.

According to the mandate’s proponents, individual Catholics and their companies have no standing to claim a violation of the First Amendment because corporations are not “persons.” But a cursory reading of the amendment reveals no mention of persons or entities to be barred from its shield. The First Amendment shields all who call on its safety without reservation or hesitation. “No law” means exactly that: no law.

This guest editorial was written by Robert Poynter, a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Lafayette and a lawyer who teaches economics and law at Ivy Tech Community College.

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