Lawyer notes important parts in religious liberty debate

| November 7, 2013 | 0 Comments

Catholics and Christians who hold traditional, biblical views are under intense pressure to conform to the “orthodoxy” of the culture, said one of the featured speakers at the Minnesota Religious Freedom Forum at the St. Paul RiverCentre Oct. 24.

Joe Infranco, who serves as senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, has been on the front line of the cultural battle, helping to represent dozens of clients who are standing up to the culture in order to defend their religious liberties.

He has been part of the team defending Hobby Lobby, a chain of stores that is fighting the federal Health and Human Services mandate requiring non-religious businesses and organizations to provide health insurance covering contraception and abortifacients.

“By God’s grace, we’ve won about 80 percent of the cases that we’re involved in,” he said. “The thing that we need most as attorneys is people of conscience like the heroes of Hobby Lobby who are willing to stand, who are willing to articulate graciously, gently and kindly the truth of God that these are important ways that I live my life, these are the values by which I direct my life. And, when that happens, that gives us the cases to present in the culture. It really is a battle for the hearts and minds of the culture.”

The front lines

One of the major fronts in the battle, he said, is marriage. He is representing a variety of cases involving people who are being forced to support same-sex marriage and homosexual relationships.

For example, there was a graduate student in Michigan enrolled in a counseling program. She specifically asked that, during her final practicum, she not be assigned someone in the type of sexual relationship that she is morally opposed to (either homosexual or outside of man-woman marriage), and who was looking for affirmation of that relationship.

In essence, she asked for an exemption, called a “values conflict,” which, Infranco said, is routinely granted. But, she was denied the exemption and asked to work with a person in a same-sex relationship looking for affirmation. She declined, which set in motion severe consequences.

“That’s [viewed by program administrators as] discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Infranco said. “So, she was offered two alternatives: ‘We’ll give you counseling and we’ll give you remedial training to help you identify and overcome these bigoted, homophobic attitudes, or we’ll kick you out of the university. So, you can pick which one you want.’ She said, ‘I’m not going to counseling to change my traditional moral beliefs.’ And so, she was thrown out of the program. Happily, we got a win in the federal appeals court.”

Infranco said there is a high level of sensitivity in the culture to anything that threatens what he calls sexual autonomy, the right of people to behave sexually however they want, and further, to be affirmed for doing so.

This is one of the most dangerous and challenging areas for religious liberty, he said. And, ironically, this attack on religious beliefs is justified by the cultural value of “tolerance.”

“Tolerance now means you must agree with my new rules of orthodoxy or you will be silenced and removed from debate,” he said.

But, Infranco said that the Church, Catholic and Christian, must not conform to the culture. Instead, people of faith must stand up and state their arguments continually, no matter the hostility that they encounter from the opposition.

“Don’t be discouraged,” Infranco said to his audience. “Things do change, trends come and go in the culture. I believe that the truth of God is eternal, and it also happens to make sense. And, when we articulate those things graciously but we stand up courageously, then I think our voice will be heard in the culture.”

The Minnesota Catholic Conference was one of four sponsoring partners of the forum.

Raising questions about whether a corporation can exercise religion, justices in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul heard oral arguments in two HHS mandate cases in late October.

By Susan Klemond
For The Catholic Spirit

One of the cases, involving Minnetonka-based medical device company Annex Medical, was Minnesota’s first legal challenge to the Obama administration’s requirement that for-profit businesses provide and pay for abortifacients, elective sterilization and contraceptives as part of their employee group health plans.

The Annex Medical case may be decided by early next year, unless the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to hear it or one of several other cases involving for-profit businesses and the Department of Health and Human Services requirement that is part of the Affordable Care Act.

If one of the HHS mandate cases is brought to the high court, it likely will continue a debate raised in a recent controversial court decision involving the free speech rights of corporations because it will question whether corporations also have the right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, said Erick Kaardal of Minneapolis-based Mohrman & Kaardal, P.A., who, together with ActRight Legal Foundation of Indiana, is representing Annex Medical owner Stuart Lind and Twin Cities businessman Tom Janas.

Lind and Janas filed the Annex case last year, and in January Lind received a preliminary injunction, which has temporarily exempted him from having to provide the coverage for his 18 employees. He opposes the mandate because complying with it would force him to violate Church teaching.

The other case brought before the Eighth Circuit was that of Missouri business owner Frank O’Brien Jr. and his company O’Brien Industrial Holdings, LLC.

As the Eighth Circuit decides the Annex Medical and O’Brien cases, three other circuit courts have issued divided opinions, he said.

With the filing this week of the case of a Twin Cities construction company, Kaardal said a total of six Minnesota cases will be challenging the HHS mandate, possibly the most of any state.  With the growing number of cases that are also receiving temporary relief from the requirement while the Annex case is decided, several health plan providers have expressed willingness to offer plans without the coverage, he said.

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