Virtual Voices
Customers walk to a Hobby Lobby store in Dallas on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.
Associated Press/Photo by Tony Gutierrez
Customers walk to a Hobby Lobby store in Dallas on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

Government shouldn't define 'church'

Healthcare Mandate

Under pressure from religious and conservative groups, the Obama administration has offered another compromise on the issue of birth control coverage within the Affordable Care Act. While exempting churches and some religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and universities, from supplying the coverage, the new proposal calls for their employees to receive stand-alone private insurance policies providing birth control coverage at no cost. Insurance companies will foot the bill, but only the naive can possibly think the cost won't find its way back to the institution in the form of higher health premiums.

Numerous lawsuits filed against this and other portions of Obamacare will proceed and for good reason: the federal government seems intent on setting rules on matters of conscience and worse, defining what constitutes a church, or religious institution.

One of the litigants is Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, whose CEO, David Green, is an evangelical Christian. Green says, "We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate." That mandate includes, in addition to contraceptive coverage in employees' healthcare, "preventive services," including "morning-after" pills and other drugs, which Green considers abortifacients. After Hobby Lobby's appeal to Justice Sonia Sotomayor was rejected, the Christian Post reports the company then made plans to "… shift the beginning of its employee health plan to temporarily avoid $1.3 million a day in fines for each day since Jan. 1 that it did not comply with the Affordable Care Act." (According to the new healthcare law, businesses with more than 50 employees that refuse to comply can be fined by the IRS $100 per day per employee.) Hobby Lobby's appeals continue.

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The core issue as I see it—and there are others—is whether the government has the right to define a church as a building in which people congregate on Sundays and whether a private company headed by a religious person qualifies for conscience exemptions. For government to decide such things violates the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, which state "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …" and appears to put the state in the position of supreme authority and arbiter of what constitutes "legitimate" religious faith and practice. The Supreme Court likely will have to resolve its constitutionality.

Permit me to offer the justices some assistance.

The early church was not a building with a towering steeple. The early church met in homes. If one accepts New Testament teaching (and what higher authority on the church could there be?), the concept of the church being an organism that resides in each individual believer is clearly spelled out in several passages.

Paul the Apostle writes in his letter to the Colossians (1:24) about the "body" of Jesus Christ, "which is the church." By this, he means the "body of believers" in whom Christ dwells. Wherever that body is, whether an individual, or a group of believers, that's the church. It was only later that this concept of church was turned into something with expensive buildings, tax exemptions, and denominations.

The same theme can be found in Revelation where Jesus asks John to write letters to several churches. Those, too, were bodies of believers, not physical structures.

In the Old Testament, God told Solomon that while He was too big to live in buildings, He would "dwell" in the Temple Solomon built for Him. Ultimately, though, He said He had other intentions: "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jeremiah 31:33)

That was and remains for believers the authentic church, so when people say, "I am going to church," it is an impossibility because they can't go to themselves.

The administration's efforts to effectively gerrymander lines between what it considers legitimate religious practice and the secular is what the Founders hoped to avoid when they linked the establishment clause with the free exercise clause.

That is why, among other reasons, government should not mandate birth control coverage as part of any national healthcare plan.

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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