This is Part I of a three part post. This part deals with the intent of the drafters in writing the First Amendment's Free Exercise of Religion clause and why the Obama HHS mandate is unconstitutional in consideration thereof.
Part II, here, deals with how the Supreme Court, and particularly Justice Scalia, have strayed from the original intent of the Free Exercise clause, but would still find the HHS Mandate unconstitutional.
Part III will deal with how the founders did not forsee or account for the rise of radical secularism, which is a religion unto itself, and how that impacts the Free Exercise clause.
Part I Summary
The Obama HHS mandate would force Catholic institutions to fund healthcare plans that directly violate the most sacred and core belief of the Catholic faith, sanctity of life. The mandate would force Catholic institutions to provide for contraception, sterilization, and Plan-B abortion, or in the alternative, be penalized or voluntarily dissolve. Such an act violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment as it was intended to be interpreted by our Founders.
The original intent of the drafters, as explained by Thomas Jefferson, was to draw a big circle around then extant mainstream religious beliefs and put those beyond the scope of government legislation. Under the Free Exercise Clause, the government could only legislate to stop an affirmative action done under the color of religion that threatened the social order. Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception was an openly held belief at the time, and thus fall within the ambit of the Free Exercise clause's protections.
Part I Discussion:
The First Amendment to the Constitution provides, in relevant part, that "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. It was over a hundred years from the signing of the Constitution that the Supreme Court was first called on to interpret the Free Exercise Clause in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. United States. In that case, a Mormon criminally charged with polygamy argued that he was only acting in accord with the precepts of his religion. The Court looked back to the drafters to find how they interpreted the "Free Exercise" clause:
[In a bill] 'for establishing religious freedom,' drafted by [Thomas} Jefferson, . . . religious freedom is defined; and after a recital 'that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of [religious beliefs and principles], and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,' it is declared 'that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.' In these two sentences is found the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what to the State.
. . . Mr. Jefferson afterwards, in reply to an address to him by a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, took occasion to say: 'Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions,-I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.'
Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere [religious beliefs], but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.
(emphasis added, citations omitted)
The Reynolds Court found that at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, all sects of the Christian faith in Europe and America had, since ancient times, practiced monogamy and had outlawed polygamy. It wan't until the Mormon faith was created in 1830 and preached polygamy as one of its tenets that polygamy in the U.S. became an issue. The Court further found that polygamy was universally held to be criminal in the 13 states at the time that the Constitution was signed.
Thus the Court found that the Constitutional prohibition against free exercise of religion did not contemplate polygamy as within its ambit. The Court, describing polygamy as "odious" to the religious traditions protected by the Constitution, and further finding it to be an "act" that threatened the social order, the Court held that polygamy could be prohibited by the state.
Also implicit in the Court's decision was that the Free Exercise clause protected mainstream Christian and Judaism and their religious doctrines extant in the U.S. at the time the Constitution was signed. Other religious beliefs and or religious beliefs claimed thereafter, to the extent that they conflicted with "peace and good order" and "societal duties," could not claim the protections of the Free Exercise clause. To this point, the Court said:
Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?
So here, as a law of the organization of society under the exclusive dominion of the United States, it is provided that plural marriages shall not be allowed. Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.
Today's Christian and Catholic Church doctrines on abortion and contraception are the same as they were at the time of the signing of the Constitution. As to contraception, "the Catholic Church has been opposed to contraception for as far back as one can historically trace." Likewise, there is no question that issues of sanctity of life and the view of abortion as a sin were part of Christianity virtually from its founding.:
There was universal condemnation of abortion in the early Church. The practice was roundly condemned in early Christian writings including the Didache and the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.
David Braine in his study concludes that:
For the whole of Christian history until appreciably after 1900 . . . there was virtually complete unanimity amongst Christians, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, that, unless, at the direct command of God, it was in all cases wrong directly to take innocent human life.
So looking at this from the standpoint of an originalist, there appears little doubt that the decision of the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to fund contraceptives and Plan B abortion, or in the alternative to be penalized or choose to dissolve, violates the 1st Amendment's clause on the Free Exercise of Religion. The Catholic Church beliefs on contraception and abortion were core beliefs at the time of the signing of the Constitution. The Church has taken no affirmative "act," and as Jefferson points out, the limitation of the government to prohibit the free exercise of religion was meant to vindicate "the rights of conscience." It is hard to see how attacking a core value of the Church could be categorized as anything other than an attack on the conscience. Moreover, as Jefferson made clear, he saw the Free Exercise clause as being in perfect balance with the then extant religions at the time the Constitution was signed, commenting that he saw "no natural right in opposition to his social duties." Today, the natural rights remain unchanged, it is only government imposition of new "societal duties" that unconstitutionally encroach on Jefferson's - and the Catholic Church's - natural rights.