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Mormon, Catholic leaders in Utah laud Hobby Lobby ruling

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John C. Wester

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 30 2014 05:45PM
Updated Jul 1, 2014 07:51AM

Several Utah faiths — including Catholicism, which opposes all forms of artificial birth control, and Mormonism, which does not — hailed Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor as a clear victory for religious freedom.

"In its ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed vital constitutional protections for our individual right to fully form our own conscience," Bishop John C. Wester, leader of the state’s 300,000 Catholics, said in a statement. "The narrow ruling recognizes that privately held companies are run by individuals with deeply held religious beliefs."

It also "reflects the reality that certain forms of so-called contraception are really abortifacients, designed not to prevent conception, but to end life," Wester said. "As such, the court’s decision respects the sanctity of an individual’s well-formed conscience by recognizing the undue burden the contraception mandate places on employers who believe in the dignity and sacredness of human life."

LDS Church spokeswoman Jessica Moody praised Monday’s ruling as "a milestone event in upholding religious freedom."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had signed an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in the case, arguing that for-profit businesses have a religious right not to provide "drugs and devices believed to sometimes cause abortions."

The Utah-based LDS Church does not oppose birth control, leaving such decisions up to the couples involved. Even so, its own insurer, Deseret Mutual, which covers all church employees, does not cover any devices or medications for the purpose of family planning.

"Health insurance plans for church employees cover contraception," an LDS Church spokesman has said, "only when it is medically necessary for addressing health conditions."

While Mormon and Catholic leaders lauded Monday’s decision, others warned of possible wider impacts.

"Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg’s dissent was right," said Frederick Gedicks, a law professor at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. "It was a decision of startling breadth."

Gedicks — speaking as an individual, not an LDS representative — previously had argued that asking for a religious exemption to Obamacare’s requirement to cover workers’ birth-control costs violates the employees’ — not the employers’ — religious rights.

With this ruling, the court has set a new precedent, the BYU lawyer said.

For more than a century, U.S. courts made distinctions between for-profit businesses owned by religious individuals and nonprofit religions or religious organizations.

"Now every time a for-profit business or owner has a religious objection to some government regulation," Gedicks said, "the courts will have to figure out whether the government interests are important enough and narrowly drawn enough to justify the burden."

The principle is clear: For-profit businesses have a presumptive right to be excused from laws and regulations that burden their religious beliefs.

The idea that the government has a ready-made means to supply contraceptives to Hobby Lobby employees "is a pipe dream," Gedicks said. "Notwithstanding the decision’s assuring language, at least in the short run, that coverage is only going to exist in the imagination of the male justices who comprised the majority."

Gedicks predicted a flood of lawsuits brought by for-profit businesses on the basis of religion, including some that do not want to serve, hire or house gays and lesbians.

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal

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