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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Back in the U.S., the White House has been working hard to fix the well-publicized problems with the Affordable Care Act. But there's at least one big problem that's outside the president's power to fix: the question of whether employers should have to provide contraception coverage to their employees. The Supreme Court will be deciding that one. They're currently considering a challenge to the contraception requirement by a group of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor.

But the case raises questions that reverberate beyond health coverage. How do you protect religious freedom when the beliefs of individuals and churches or businesses come into conflict? That's our cover story today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: We start with a case before the Supreme Court. The Little Sisters of the Poor are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Kristina Arriaga is the fund's director, and she says the sisters are as selfless as their name implies.

KRISTINA ARRIAGA: They devote their lives to serving the poor, elderly, people that have nowhere else to go in their last years. And the sisters, under the new HHS - Health and Human Services - mandate, are being forced by the government to either sign a form allowing a third party to provide contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs to their employees or they're being threatened with fines.

RATH: A lot of critics are asking, what's the big deal about signing a form? The form is there expressly for church-affiliated groups like the sisters so they can register loud and clear that they're opting out of contraception coverage. But Arriaga says the provision doesn't do enough to protect religious liberty.

ARRIAGA: Well, the Little Sisters of the Poor feel that whether they provide the contraceptives or these potentially life-terminating drugs to their employees or they make someone else do it, it's the same thing. It's a sin. They're not allowed by their God to provide these medications to their employees. And they simply cannot, in good conscience, sign that form. And their conscientious objection should absolutely be respected by the government.

RATH: And this gets us to the core questions: Who has the right to religious liberty? And what does it mean to exercise that right?

Jay Michaelson is a fellow at the liberal Political Research Associates, who wrote a report titled "Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights."

JAY MICHAELSON: I think we'd all agree that a church shouldn't be compelled to perform a religious ceremony that it doesn't want to perform. Then the next level up is religious organizations. So Catholic hospitals, Catholic charities - do they have to obey the same laws as everyone else, or can they - do they have a separate set of laws that applies only to them?

RATH: And what about religious liberty for individual people, Americans who bring their religious beliefs outside the church and into their businesses? To answer that, we're going to Lakewood, Colorado, west of Denver.

JACK PHILLIPS: Yeah. I'm Jack Phillips from Masterpiece Cakeshop. And we make specialty cakes and cookies and brownies here in Lakewood, Colorado.

RATH: The shop's website boasts that if you can think it up, Phillips can make it into a cake. He's owned the shop for 20 years.

PHILLIPS: I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, and so I try in every aspect of my life to reflect that. That in every way I want to have integrity in my life and honesty and love for my fellow man and do everything to the best of my ability to honor him.

RATH: Phillips says his faith affects everything he does, including how he runs his business. Last September, that became a problem.

PHILLIPS: Two gentlemen came in my store and said that they were here to look for a wedding cake. It was for their wedding. And so I replied that I don't do cakes for same-sex weddings. They were surprised and kind of asked for an explanation like, what? And so I explained to them that I would make their birthday cakes and sell them cookies and brownies, but I just don't do cakes for same-sex weddings, at which point they both stormed out of the shop. I just didn't feel that as a Christian that I would want to participate in a same-sex wedding by providing the cake and my talents and my business for that event.

RATH: A few weeks later, Phillips got a notice from the state. The ACLU had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the two men. They say his refusal is a legal discrimination. Phillips says he is protected by his First Amendment right to live according to his religious beliefs.

In December, a judge sided with the ACLU and ordered Phillips to provide the cakes for same-sex ceremonies. Phillips has appealed the decision, but his case is just one of many like it. In Washington, another baker and a florist were both sued, and an Oregon bakery is under investigation for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple.

Kristina Arriaga of the Becket Fund says devout business owners have a right to refuse.

ARRIAGA: Many of these bakers and service providers for weddings feel that by participating in the wedding ceremony itself, they're acknowledging in some way that these are valid marriages and their religion tells them otherwise.

RATH: What about the argument that this is looking at liberty and rights from the wrong direction, that, you know, say the freedom of same-sex couples to be married and express their vows before God in a way that's consistent with their religion and prohibiting them from getting married suppresses their basic right to their religious expression?

ARRIAGA: Oh, we at the Becket Fund think that they have a right to get married in states that (unintelligible) that right. However, they should not be forcing individuals who do not agree with their marriage to participate in the ceremony. They should seek out parties that share their religious beliefs.

RATH: Jay Michaelson believes that the legal battles reflect a cultural shift in America.

MICHAELSON: I think there's a real sense of a cultural war being lost. And that sense is not entirely inaccurate. We are changing as a country. Having our first African-American president is a massive change. Having same-sex marriage be legal for over 30 percent of Americans is a significant change. And these changes are authentically terrifying. I think it is a sincere movement. There are a number of people who really believe that we've lost our moral center when it comes to matters of sexuality and gender.

And you could - they have pretty good reasons for that. I just think that the cure is not abridging people's freedom, but coming to a more expansive understanding of what being in a civil democracy is about.

RATH: At Masterpiece Cakeshop, the fight continues. Jack Phillips has appealed his case on religious-liberty grounds. But what if he loses and the courts say he must provide cakes for same-sex ceremonies?

PHILLIPS: I won't provide the service. It goes against my core beliefs, and I can't be forced to do something against my will, regardless of what the law says.

RATH: He knows he could be fined or even have his business license taken away.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. That's a small price to pay for my faith and for my citizenship.

RATH: Jack Phillips is just one of many Americans locked in the battle over competing notions of religious liberty.

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