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The limits of religious liberty

In implementing the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration has offered religious schools and charities that object to some birth control methods a reasonable and respectful accommodation: They need not provide or pay for contraceptive coverage for their female employees, but they must inform the government of their objections so coverage can be offered directly by an insurance company. But that compromise isn’t good enough for the leaders of some of the organizations, who believe that merely signing a paper expressing their objections makes them complicit in sin because it “triggers” actions by others.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the organizations’ reluctance to cooperate even to that minimal extent is protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which bars the government from imposing a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion unless doing so serves a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. It’s vital that the court reject the organizations’ extravagant interpretation of that law.

The ACA requires most employer health insurance plans to include coverage for preventive healthcare, a mandate that the Obama administration has interpreted to require that female employees be provided, without extra cost, all contraceptive methods recommended by the federal Preventive Services Task Force. The administration exempted houses of worship and religious orders from the mandate. But for religiously affiliated institutions, which employ people of many faiths and in some cases none at all, it crafted a compromise: Once an employer certified an objection to providing contraceptives, the cost would be assumed by its insurer or insurance administrator.

Ironically, in his majority opinion in last year’s Hobby Lobby case, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. praised that approach, noting that the government “has already devised and implemented a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious nonprofit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections to providing such coverage.” But the new challengers are seizing on another passage in which Alito said that courts “have no business addressing” whether a religious belief is reasonable.

Essentially, the institutions are arguing that their conviction that signing a paper compromises their faith is itself a theological proposition that no earthly court may question. If the court were to agree, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would be transformed into a blank check for obstructionism, and bipartisan support for the law — already undermined by the Hobby Lobby decision, which found that “closely held” businesses needn’t pay for contraceptive coverage — would continue to erode. It’s important to remember that in enacting the law two decades ago, Congress provided for more protection for religious liberty than was guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. What Congress can pass, it can also repeal.

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 10

The US bombing campaign in Syria loses its allies

In the bombing campaign in Syria against the Islamic State group, the United States has been more or less left on its own; at the same time, international attempts to end the conflict may be moving forward.

As President Barack Obama steps up the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by adding more bombers to the U.S. fleet working out of Turkey, the role of America’s onetime active Middle Eastern and European allies has been reduced to holding the Pentagon’s coat while it wages the fight. Russia, however, continues to attack Islamic State targets.

In spite of the threat to their regimes by the Islamic State, the last air attack mounted on it by Bahrain was in February, United Arab Emirates in March, Jordan in August and Saudi Arabia in September. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concentrating their military efforts on defeating the Shiite Muslim Houthis in Yemen.

The United States should be asking itself if it should care more about these regimes’ security against the Islamists than the countries do themselves.

Meanwhile, Russia has been quietly circulating a peace proposal to end the war. The conflict will be addressed once more in Vienna with talks this Saturday. Russia’s plan unfolds over 18 months and includes reforms in Syria such as a new constitution with elections. The Russian proposal contains some big snags, however.

One is that it does not address the long-term role of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia continues to support him as the country’s leader; Obama says he has to go. Another question is the role of Syria’s so-called moderates, backed by the United States. Given the disarray among them and their ineptitude on the battlefield, it isn’t clear who they are, much less who will represent them in negotiations.

The most positive development at this stage is that the parties will continue to talk. Only an active and serious negotiation can put a halt to the fighting and dying in Syria.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 12

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