State of the Union invites are almost all political. The President, First Lady and members of Congress use them to signal their values and priorities to constituents and journalists alike.
For instance, the empty seat in the First Lady’s guest box — a seat left empty as a tribute to the tens of thousands of Americans killed by guns every year — garnered its fair share of coverage in the media. Almost as much coverage as Congressman Jim Jordan’s decision to let the Family Research Council choose his guests for him — a decision that resulted in Kim Davis sitting in the same room as Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that Davis has spent the last year massively resisting.
But Jordan’s invite of Davis and her lawyer, Matt Staver, via the Family Research Council weren’t the only tickets extended to fundamentalists crusading against the federal government in the name of Christian privilege:
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) January 13, 2016
Yep. Paul Ryan invited the Little Sisters of the Poor to the State of the Union.
This invite isn’t as headline-grabbing as Kim Davis’s, but it’s arguably more important in the long run. Like Kim Davis, Little Sisters of the Poor are waging a legal battle against the government in the name of religious freedom that is, at its core, an assertion of Christian privilege. Like Kim Davis, they have little chance of succeeding. Unlike Kim Davis, however, their claims test the boundaries of government regulation on the religious beliefs of people who operate outside of the public sector.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find too many people who agree with Kim Davis that, as a public official, she has a right to practice her faith on the job. The debate over when and how private religious beliefs should exempt one from secular laws, however, is farther from being settled.
That said, Little Sisters of the Poor really shouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. As I wrote in November:
[Hobby Lobby] held that the government could not require closely-held corporations and other organizations with sincerely-held religious beliefs to provide health insurance plans for their employees that include coverage for certain types of birth control. In response, HHS created a short form — literally a half-page — asking companies seeking exemptions from the contraception mandate to simply indicate their religious objection, at which time the government would connect the employees in question with a private health insurance plan providing the coverage free of charge. Since contraception is cost-neutral, no one — not the employer, not the insurance company and not the government — shoulders any additional cost.
But for Little Sisters, who Pope Francis told to keep fighting the good fight when he visited in September, this isn’t enough. The requirement that they state their objection, rather than being allowed to simply deny their employees health insurance plans other employers are required to provide, is too much for them.
Thus far, nearly every court that has heard their case has ruled that their claim is ridiculous. It doesn’t violate your religious beliefs when the government asks you to declare your religious beliefs so that it can accommodate your religious beliefs.
The Obama administration, through the Affordable Care Act, has decided that health insurance should cover contraception, and that if employers’ religious beliefs prohibit them from providing it, the government can make alternative arrangements. Little Sisters of the Poor is insisting that by being at all involved in the process by which their employees wind up with a health insurance plan that covers contraception — even if that involvement is a statement of objection — they would be endorsing behavior that they consider to be a mortal sin. They’ve left no room to accommodate the government’s requirement that, some way, somehow, their employees wind up with a health insurance plan that covers what the administration wants to cover.
This is actually a much broader demand than the one Kim Davis wound up making. Davis simply wanted the process by which marriage licenses were issued to be amended such that she would no longer have to be a part of it. Letting her have her way, which Governor Matt Bevin recently did, may set a dangerous precedent, but at least removing her from the marriage license process doesn’t keep any same-sex couples from getting their marriage licenses.
Letting Little Sisters of the Poor have their way, on the other hand, would result in the employees of religious organizations — employees who may not share their employers’ religious beliefs — being denied access to health insurance coverage that the administration has decided should be part of every health insurance plan. All because this Christian group has decided, on bogus scientific and theological grounds, that IUDs count as abortions.
Little Sisters of the Poor is demanding that their religious beliefs be accommodated to the point at which secular public policy outcomes are changed for the worse. This is a demand that no religious group other than conservative Christians can make with any hope of being taken seriously. This being the case, they aren’t demanding their freedom to practice their faith; they’re asserting their privilege to impose it on others.
Last night, Paul Ryan gave that privilege his emphatic endorsement.