DOJ to Federal Judge: We Can Force Your Wife to Violate Her Religion

February 25, 2013 - 7:34 PM
Judge Reggie Walton

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - While presenting an oral argument in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last fall, a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department told a federal judge that the Obama administration believed it could force the judge’s own wife—a physician—to act against her religious faith in the conduct of her medical practice.

The assertion came in the case of Tyndale House Publishers v. Sebelius, a challenge to the Obama administration’s regulation requiring health-care plans to cover sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

Tyndale is a for-profit corporation that publishes Bibles, biblical commentaries and other religious works. Tyndale House Foundation, a religious non-profit organization, owns 96.5 percent of the corporation’s stock and receives 96.5 percent of its profits. The foundation’s mission is “to minister to the spiritual needs of people, primarily through grants to other religious charities.”

As a matter of religious principle, the foundation believes that human life begins at conception and that abortion is wrong.

The corporation self-insures, providing its employees with a generous health-care plan. But, in keeping with its religious faith, it does not in any way provide abortions. For this reason, Tyndale sued the Obama administration, arguing that the Obamacare regulation that would force it to provide abortion-inducing drugs and IUDs in its health-care plan violated its right to the free-exercise of religion.

“Consistent with the religious beliefs of Tyndale and its owners, Tyndale’s self-insured plan does not and has never covered abortions or abortifacient drugs or devices such as emergency contraception and intrauterine devices,” Tyndale said in its legal complaint, prepared by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

When Tyndale sought a preliminary injunction to prevent the administration from enforcing the regulation on the company before the federal courts could determine the issue on its merits, Benjamin Berwick, a lawyer for the Civil Division of the Justice Department presented the administration's argument for why Tyndale should be forced to act against the religious faith of its owners. The oral argument over the preliminary injunction occurred Nov. 9 in Judge Walton’s court.

Berwick argued here--as the administration has argued in other cases where private businesses are challenging the sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate--that once people form a corporation to conduct business they lose their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion insofar as their business is concerned.

In the face of this argument, Judge Walton asked an interesting question. His wife, a graduate of Georgetown Medical School, is a physician. She has incorporated her medical practice. Does that mean, according to the Obama administration’s argument, that the federal government can force her to act against her religious faith in the conduct of her medical practice?

Berwick effectively answered: Yes.

Here, from the official court transcript, is the verbatim exchange between this Obama administration lawyer and Judge Walton:

Benjamin Berwick: “Well, your honor, I think, I think there are two distinct ideas here: One is: Is the corporation itself religious such that it can exercise religion? And my, our argument is that it is not. Although again, we admit that it is a closer case than for a lot of other companies. And then the second question is, can the owners--is it a substantial burden on the owners when the requirement falls on the company that is a separate legal entity? I think for that question precisely what their beliefs are doesn't really matter. I mean, they allege that they're religious beliefs are being violated. We don't question that. And we don't question that that is the belief.

Judge Reggie Walton: But considering the closeness of the relationship that the individual owners have to the corporation to require them to fund what they believe amounts to the taking of a life, I don't know what could be more contrary to one's religious belief than that.

Berwick: Well, I don't think the fact this is a closely-held corporation is particularly relevant, your honor. I mean, Mars, for example--

Judge Walton: Well, I mean, my wife has a medical practice. She has a corporation, but she's the sole owner and sole stock owner. If she had strongly-held religious belief and she made that known that she operated her medical practice from that perspective, could she be required to pay for these types of items if she felt that that was causing her to violate her religious beliefs?

Berwick: Well, Your Honor, I think what it comes down to is whether there is a legal separation between the company and—

Judge Walton: It's a legal separation. I mean, she obviously has created the corporation to limit her potential individual liability, but she's the sole owner and everybody associates that medical practice with her as an individual. And if, you know, she was very active in her church and her church had these same type of strong religious-held beliefs, and members of the church and the community became aware of the fact that she is funding something that is totally contrary to what she professes as her belief, why should she have to do that?

Berwick: Well, your honor, again, I think it comes down to the fact that the corporation and the owner truly are separate. They are separate legal entities.

Judge Walton: So, she'd have to give up the limitation that conceivably would befall on her regarding liability in order to exercise her religion? So, she'd have to go as an individual proprietor with no corporation protection in order to assert her religious right? Isn't that as significant burden?

On Nov. 16, Judge Walton granted Tyndale a preliminary injunction preventing the Obama administration from forcing the corporation to violate the religious beliefs of its owners.

In a series of interviews conducted in 2007 by the Historical Society of the District of Columbia, Judge Walton reported that his wife was a doctor of medicine who had attended Georgetown Medical School.