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Supreme Court deserves credit for defending religious liberty

Few may have noticed the Supreme Court consistently defending religious liberty in a string of cases involving contraceptives. For the most part, the court defends the important role that faith communities play in public life.
Few may have noticed the Supreme Court consistently defending religious liberty in a string of cases involving contraceptives. For the most part, the court defends the important role that faith communities play in public life.
Stuart Johnson, Stuart Johnson

While many await a Supreme Court decision in a continuing series of landmark same-sex marriage cases that could significantly redefine the contours of individual and religious liberty in America, few may have noticed the court consistently defending religious liberty in a string of cases involving contraceptives.

Recently, the Supreme Court again took steps to protect private religious objectors from the contraceptive mandate required by the Affordable Care Act, ordering the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a 2014 decision that would force a group of Catholic ministries in Michigan to provide employer-sponsored access to contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

It marked the sixth consecutive case over two years in which the Supreme Court has defended religious objectors against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate, including cases involving the University of Notre Dame, Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College and an association of nuns called Little Sisters of the Poor. Last year, the Supreme Court even defended — again, as it has for decades — Christian prayers said before town hall meetings, in this case where an atheist was offended by the prayers and sued.

Let’s give credit where credit is due: The Supreme Court cares about protecting religious liberty, and, for the most part, it defends the important role that faith communities play in public life.

It’s easy to cast stones at decisions we don’t like. For example, how could the high court ever have supported the racial doctrine of “separate but equal” or the forced relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans? Can a single “swing vote” on the court really be given that much power? What if they get it wrong?

The good news and the bad news are one in the same: All of us have more to do with Supreme Court decisions than we may realize — or than we may be willing to publicly admit.

Judges are not supposed to make decisions based upon what is popular but rather on what is principled, as defined by the Constitution and its judicial history. But judges are still real people, and, just like the real people in the other two branches of government, they can be persuaded by human experience and public sentiment.

“E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” are our national mottos, one encouraging unity out of diversity and the second acknowledging the source from whom that diversity and unity flow. Both are individual and national soul-searching tasks and require plenty of humble self-inspection to do well. Sometimes our national sentiment is divided, and sometimes it is unified. In either case, our form of government, including our judicial system, tends to show us ourselves at a very personal level in a grand mirror of social reflection.

Abraham Lincoln said: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

We commend a Supreme Court that deserves credit for defending religious liberty. If we desire the Supreme Court to continue deciding in favor of an America that honors its vibrant culture of religion in public life, then we must continue with the hard, personal work of cultivating public sentiment that respects that culture.

That doesn’t require us to be shrill, divisive or fearful — for as Lincoln also said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”