Copyright 2012 Doing the Right Thing
Responding to the Supreme Court ruling
By: John S. Ehrett|Published: June 28, 2012 5:56 PM
Today, the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly termed “Obamacare.”
Naturally, such a dramatic decision will have implications for ethical discourse in society. From a moral standpoint, three questions seem to naturally arise from the judgment: first, did the Court act ethically; second; how should Americans respond; and third, how will the ruling impact those with moral concerns (i.e. Catholic institutions protesting the contraception coverage mandate). American citizens should carefully consider all three questions.
Few, if any, observers dispute that the Court conducted its deliberations in an ethical manner. The necessary process of evaluation, established by the Constitution and past precedent, appears to have been followed meticulously. Analysts will continue to disagree on whether or not the Court’s judgment – that Obamacare was in fact permissible under the Constitution – was accurate, but there seem to be no grounds for claiming corruption.
An enormous amount of vitriol has been directed against Chief Justice John Roberts. A Bush appointee, Roberts surprisingly voted with the Court’s left wing to uphold the “individual mandate,” a directive requiring all Americans to purchase insurance or pay a fee. Many commentators have sharply criticized Roberts for what they see as a “betrayal” of the American trust.
It is vital to recognize that gratuitous character assassination is not an acceptable argumentative tactic; discourse must be civil if society is to prosper. Disagreement with Roberts’ legal judgment – or George Bush’s military policies, or Barack Obama’s gay-rights campaign - does not justify many of the accusations and epithets thrown about in modern culture. Political discourse, from both the right and the left, has become unacceptably divisive.
Did the Court rule correctly? Reasonable people will continue to debate the subject. But the die has already been cast; individuals should take the ethical road by responding with graciousness, civility, and courage.
The last – and for many, the more important – question is one of conscience. Foundational to cultural integrity – and human rights – is the freedom to openly practice one’s religion, the highest expression of the moral principles one embraces. It is unethical to coerce individuals to engage in actions contrary to their religious beliefs, except in the most extreme cases (e.g. human sacrifices). Yet recent directives from the Department of Health and Human Services appear to do just that, requiring Catholic institutions to offer insurance coverage for contraceptives. This is a serious breach of Catholic religious teachings, and has been met with justifiable criticism.
The Court’s ruling does not offer an explicit path forward for the ongoing contraception debate, although reports from religious liberty law firms offer clues.
Here, a brief point of legal clarification is in order: the individual mandate was justified as merely a form of taxation, rather than as an exercise of regulatory power inherently possessed by Congress. (The government may not order that individuals purchase insurance; it can only incentivize them, and must do so without inflicting an undue burden). According to Roberts, this is not an egregious redefinition of governmental authority; it may be the most expansive single tax ever formulated, but it is still merely a new tax (comparable to a cigarette tax). The authority to promulgate or repeal said tax lies with Congress.
The exercise of this taxing power is subject to certain requirements which Roberts outlines in his opinion. Most crucially, Roberts notes that a tax cannot be excessively burdensome (in which case it would constitute a coercive “penalty,” impermissible under the Constitution). Furthermore, taxes must not conflict with other provisions of the Constitution…such as the First Amendment, which guarantees religious liberty. Thus, there may well be a loophole protecting religious organizations from the mandate tax.
Whether or not Obamacare is good policy is necessarily a controversial question, and beyond the scope of this discussion. Americans of all political parties, however, should affirm two moral principles: public dialogue should be respectful, and freedom of religion must be affirmed. If nothing else, perhaps this is one nonpartisan idea both sides can embrace.