By Representative Trey Gowdy
Can religious beliefs be forced on you? Can government decide which religious beliefs are "acceptable" and which are not? Of course not. But this is the crux of the "free exercise" debate ignited by the Obama administration's recent new health care mandate that forces employers to provide "free" contraception, sterilization and abortifacients.
The issue is not one of good health -- despite election-year efforts to frame it as such. If it were only about good health, government would have long ago outlawed smoking, mandated daily vitamins and forced employers to provide gym memberships. The issue is not even "free" contraception. If it were, a member of Congress with an elastic view of the Commerce Clause would have long ago introduced a bill providing it to the public for "free" -- whatever that means.
The real issues are whether the First Amendment is broad enough to include beliefs with which we disagree, and whether government can tacitly or otherwise force us to abandon our religious beliefs simply because something constitutes sound public policy.
A debate over sound public policy never can be substituted for constitutional consistency. If government action affects religious liberty, the government must (1) provide a compelling reason for the encroachment on free exercise and (2) prove the action used is the least restrictive means available.
When a state required -- in the interest of an educated citizenry -- all students to stay in school until a certain age, a religious group objected because it violated their religious beliefs. And the Supreme Court agreed with the religious group.
When a state attempted to ensure a loyal citizenry by requiring students to pledge allegiance to the American flag, a religious group objected because it violated their beliefs. And the Supreme Court agreed with the religious group.
When a state decided to outlaw animal sacrifice, a religious group objected because it prevented them from performing a specific ritual. And the Supreme Court agreed with the religious group.
When a state decided to require uniform license tags for motor vehicles, a religious group objected because it didn't agree with the language used on the license tag. And the Supreme Court agreed with the religious group.
When a religious group fired a minister, the Obama administration objected and claimed it was a violation of employment law. The Supreme Court, in a rare 9-0 opinion, agreed with the religious group that the government does not get to pick ministers for churches.
In the instances above, it is nearly inarguable that goals such as an educated citizenry, loyalty to state, the prevention of animal sacrifice and the avoidance of employment discrimination are laudable -- perhaps even compelling -- government interests.