Hobby Lobby at the Supreme Court

Hobby Lobby in Stow, Ohio. (Photo: DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons)

Hobby Lobby in Stow, Ohio. (Photo: DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons)

The Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby religious freedom case is important for many reasons; I’ll just cite a couple. First, the precedent set in the law because of the decision will either strengthen or weaken the ability of business owners to run their business according to their consciences (religious or otherwise).

Second, and related to the first, is the signal the Supreme Court’s decision will send to lower courts about its view of religious freedom. A ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and religious freedom could stem the recent tide of state-level decisions against religious freedom, in which small business owners face fines or even jail time for declining to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies based on the First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religious freedom and freedom of speech.

Opponents of Hobby Lobby’s position argue that, as a corporation, Hobby Lobby is not entitled to the same protections that individuals receive. However, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations have substantially the same rights as individuals in the eyes of the law. This makes sense. Simply because a business owner takes the necessary legal steps to form a corporation shouldn’t suddenly strip the business owner of the ability to run the business as they see fit.

Yes, all freedoms have limits, and in the early ’90s Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) with lots of bipartisan support to define those limits and freedoms. RFRA strengthened religious freedom by prohibiting government from unduly burdening the practice of religion without demonstrating a compelling state interest, and even then, it must do so using the least restrictive means possible.

Some would find fining Hobby Lobby an estimated $475 million per year for failing to comply with the Obamacare mandate a bit excessive.

Additionally, National Review points out:

While claiming the mandate is necessary for women’s health, the Obama administration has exempted the health-care plans of tens of millions of women from the HHS mandate — often for merely political or commercial reasons. But the government is unrelenting in enforcing this mandate against a relatively small number of family businesses that simply want to provide health care without being forced to violate their conscience under threat of heavy fines.

Hobby Lobby offers 16 of the 20 mandated contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. The company objects to the other four. The question is who should pay for one of those four if it is what the Hobby Lobby employee wants to use as a contraceptive. It seems reasonable that the employee should find an alternative method to pay for that particular contraceptive after rejecting the other 16.

Surely, no one is forcing an individual to work at Hobby Lobby and, if that person does work at Hobby Lobby, he or she understands the Christian values in play (one of which, incidentally, compels Hobby Lobby to pay wages 80 percent higher than the federal minimum wage). In other words, the employee knows what to expect, which should help inform his or her employment decisions.

It is ironic that a corporation like CVS Pharmacy is widely applauded for making a business decision based on health to no longer sell cigarettes, but when the Hobby Lobby corporation makes a decision based on religious beliefs not to offer four of 20 mandated contraceptives, it is roundly criticized by the left. Both are corporations (run, of course, by people); both make business and moral decisions that affect employees and customers; and both should be free to do so.

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Legislature supports public-lands transfer with ‘what next’ bills

Sutherland-Self-Govt-LogoThe Utah Legislature adjourned this month with a nice package of bills to support the state’s Transfer of Public Lands (TPLA) initiative. Since they’ve already passed a bill demanding transfer, the next step is to address what happens to the lands when that transfer occurs.

Other states contemplating a TPLA-like effort can front-load some of the debate and address the concerns of many potential detractors by including some or all of these “next step” bills in their initial package. The idea is to demonstrate that this isn’t an industry grab or an effort to develop every federal acre out there, but rather to responsibly manage these lands in a way that balances responsible conservation with betterment of the human condition. This means that some lands will remain (or become) preservation areas, some will be economically developed, and most will probably see some of each of those things since they’re rarely mutually exclusive.

Here are the Utah bills (with links) that I think most directly address the “what next” issue and show good faith in future management plans. …

Click here to read the rest of this post at at Sutherland’s Center for Self-Government in the West.

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Utah through a taxpayer’s eyes

MoneypileAccording to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article:

  • Utah residents pay the 14th lowest taxes in the nation, or the 10th lowest if adjusted for cost of living
  • The average Utah taxpayer pays $6,069 in taxes (state and local)
  • The average tax bill in Utah is 13 percent less than the national average
  • Unlike some states, Utah has no local income taxes
  • Utah’s property taxes are 11th lowest in the nation
  • Republican states like Utah have lower taxes, on average, than Democrat states

To see the report from which these facts were taken, click here.

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Learning the delicate dance of candor and civility – Mero Moment, 3/18/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

dancersTen years ago this month Sutherland Institute finalized plans for a very unique project in Utah politics. It was 10 years ago that we created our Transcend Series. Hundreds of elected officials and community leaders have spent the better part of a full day, once a month, for nine months to gain context, perspective and introspection about their role as decision-makers.

The highlight of the Transcend Series has been sessions with author Jim Ferrell and educator Quinn McKay. Jim Ferrell permissioned these elected officials and community leaders to see people as people and not as objects in a political arena, and Quinn McKay pushed them uncomfortably to face the realities of honesty and integrity in public service.

At the heart of the Transcend Series has been a desire to highlight the delicate balance between civility and candor. Too much candor at the expense of civility and too much civility at the expense of candor can hurt open dialogue and, ultimately, democratic processes.

Most of us are either very good at one or the other. We’re very good at candor or we’re very good at civility. But few of us have mastered that delicate balance between the two. Undisciplined, candor can often seem offensive and civility passive-aggressive. And it’s no coincidence that community voices often remind us to be civil in our public dialogue – as if to say we rarely lack the ability to express candor. The truth is that achieving candor is just as difficult as achieving civility mostly, I think, because many people don’t believe you can be both candid and civil.

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What time is it? Caucus time!

caucus_system-portionParty caucuses are tonight and Thursday, so here’s your chance to have a voice in Utah’s political process! Click here for a giant infographic explaining how Utah’s caucus system works. Click here to learn what delegates are and how they’re important. And click here to find out how to become a delegate!

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On Point at the Capitol: advice from women in politics, 3/14/14

In this episode of On Point, “Holly on the Hill” blogger Holly Richardson interviews several Democratic and Republican state legislators about the highs and lows of the 2014 session and finds out how they got started in politics. The legislators, many of them retiring, also share advice for women considering entering politics.

Holly interviews:

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-District 4
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-District 5
Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-District 1
Rep. Dana Layton, R-District 60
Rep. Becky Edwards, R-District 20
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-District 24
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-District 23

Watch here on YouTube!

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Election solution may be a Pyrrhic victory – Mero Moment, 3/11/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. (Scroll down for podcast.)

CapitolnightAs the legislative version of the Count My Vote initiative is signed into law, we should reflect on its meaning. State Senator Curt Bramble did a remarkable job in countering the initiative by consuming its vital parts and making it a legislative solution rather than a special interest victory. Even though the end result is that Utah voters are now strapped with a dual electoral system that will only add more divisiveness to Utah politics, Bramble’s expert move temporarily frustrated political liberals and cut off their momentum at the knees.  The Legislature became the solution, not political elites.

But this legislative solution looks to be a Pyrrhic victory. In this new dual electoral system, people of principle will run inside the ongoing caucus/convention system and people of pragmatism will use the signature/primary system – and, depending on the most pressing issues of the time, people of principle in elected office might find the need to join the ranks of the pragmatists just to stay there.

The bottom line is that principle will lose ground to pragmatism – meaning limited government will lose ground to Big Government. It’s tough enough now for principled leaders of limited government in the Utah Legislature to stand against the tide of special interest demands and cultural shifts. It will soon be impossible.

Count My Vote makes Utah a worse place to live, work and raise a family. Providing an alternative path for liberals and moderates to get elected in the Republican Party means Utah changes forever. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times – freedom will lose permanent ground.

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What’s the deal with Utah’s air quality?

A 2013 survey found that 78 percent of Utahns think our air is worse today than it was 20 years ago. While we certainly do seem to have a lot more bad air days lately, the number of official red air days isn’t because we have worse air, it’s because the government changed its definition of bad air. In 2009 the EPA became much stricter on how much pollution it says is too much. Consequently, we have more red air days even as actual pollution levels are falling. That’s right, Utah’s air quality has drastically improved over the last couple decades. It just doesn’t seem like it because of changing regulations and aggressive public awareness campaigns.

So why do we care what the EPA’s changing regulations say? First, because pollution is harmful and public awareness of its levels and its sources is a good thing. Second, and this may explain the recent rush of government and business proclamations about air quality, if Utah continues to run afoul of federal regulations then we face the prospect of losing all federal transportation funding. There will be no federal money for new freeways or light rail trains, or any other new transportation project we currently rely upon the federal government to fund.

But regardless of funding or artificially inflated red air days, there are real health risks associated with poor air quality. There are numerous studies linking certain particulates in the air to a multitude of breathing and other health problems. So as responsible citizens it behooves us to identify these pollutants and reduce them where possible. However as in most things, identifying problems is fairly simple, while the policy prescriptions are much less so.

First, what’s causing the pollution? Again, surveys show that what many of us believe to be the culprit has less of an impact than we think. When we see pollution we often envision big industry with their huge smokestacks. While the Wasatch Front does have some industry (Kennecott Utah Copper mine, refineries, etc.), these sources only make up about 10 percent of the air pollution.

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Weakening the ‘old habits of decency’

The Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility and Court, Chicago.

A juvenile detention facility in Chicago.

A wonderfully stated warning regarding the effect of government largesse:

A sentimental utilitarianism argued that prosperity would abolish sin. It was a shallow argument, ignorant of history; for had it been true, all rich men’s sons, these many centuries past, would have been perfectly virtuous.

To the student of history, as contrasted with the doctrinaire positivistic reformer, it seems that people are decent, when they are decent, chiefly out of habit. They fall into habits of decent conduct by religious instruction, by settled family life, by assuming private responsibilities, by the old incentives of private gain and advancement in rewards for decent conduct. When the individual seems to run no risks; when food, shelter, and even comforts are guaranteed by the state, no matter what one’s conduct may be; when the state arrogates to itself a complex of responsibilities that formerly were undertaken by church, family, voluntary association, and the private person – why, then the old habits of decency are weakened, and the police constable and the Borstal* are required to maintain precariously by compulsion what once was taken for granted in Britain and elsewhere.”

- Russell Kirk, ‘The Sword of Imagination’

*youth detention center

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Arkansas’ new Medicaid expansion is already seeing cost overruns

MystethoscopeAccording to a recent analysis from the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), the “private option” Medicaid expansion plan in Arkansas (giving premium subsidies to mostly able-bodied, childless adults to help them purchase private health insurance) has begun seeing cost overruns in its second month of operation. Based on previous cost estimates done by consultants and state departments, the cost overruns are expected to continue. And despite Obamacare’s “promise” to cover 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs in the first three years of expansion, these unexpected costs mean Arkansas taxpayers will pay millions more than they would have otherwise.

All of this is relevant to Utah because the Legislature is also considering a “private option” Medicaid expansion plan, albeit in a more limited fashion (only for those below 100 percent of the federal poverty line, rather than 138 percent like Arkansas’ plan). But Arkansas’ cost problems are still a warning for Utah because the underlying problems driving the costs are similar to those in what Utah is proposing: no incentive for Utahns to choose low-cost health plans and significant variations in insurance rates in the Obamacare exchange across the state.

What we see playing out in Arkansas is another reason that Utah would be logical and prudent not to expand Medicaid. At the very least, Utah should take a “wait and see” approach while other states unwisely rush to grab every federal dollar they can, without understanding what they (and their taxpayers) are getting into.

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Testimony on HB 285 (Alcoholic Beverage Service Amendments)

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Testimony presented by Stan Rasmussen, director of public affairs, Sutherland Institute, on March 4 before the House Revenue and Taxation Standing Committee regarding HB 285 3rd Substitute – Alcoholic Beverage Service Amendments:

Thank you Mr. Chair, and good afternoon, Representatives. Stan Rasmussen representing Sutherland Institute to present our perspective on this bill.

You have heard today, or will hear, that HB 285 is needed for the development of private businesses that sell alcohol, also known as “economic development.” Clearly this is of interest to those who profit from liquor sales, but it has nothing to do with the goals of alcohol policy in Utah, as spelled out in Utah Code section 32B-1-103.

This is one reason we encourage you to oppose HB 285. If businesses that profit off of alcohol desire that economic development be a primary goal of alcohol policy, then we recommend they pursue for legislation amending section 32B-1-103 to that end so we can have an honest and candid debate about alcohol policy in Utah, instead of promoting legislation that undermines Utah alcohol policy the explicit purpose of which is to limit the social harms created by alcohol sales and consumption.

One goal of Utah alcohol policy is to “not promote or encourage the sale or consumption” of alcohol. HB 285 will not serve this goal, and in fact will undermine it. This can be seen in comments of restaurateurs and bartenders in news articles describing the “allure” and “art” of mixing drinks, along with statements estimating how much their alcohol sales would increase without the partition.

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Politics in Utah needs more integrity, less emotion – Mero Moment, 3/4/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. (Scroll down for podcast.)

Photo: Hannibal Poenaru

Photo: Hannibal Poenaru

Speaking of my role as president of Sutherland Institute, a very dear friend of mine has told me more than once that I will be the life or death of the organization. What he means is that my professional experience in politics and policy, along with my leadership abilities, are what will carry Sutherland to consistently achieve its vision and mission in defense of faith, family and freedom, or my candor and my hubris will sink the ship ultimately.

He and I are the same creatures. We are big, red, testosterone-driven personalities. We hate to lose more than we like to win. We aren’t gentle people. We have to work at being Christ-like. It doesn’t just come naturally for us. Here’s one example from my life: Our oldest boy was playing a high school basketball game when he stepped on the foot of an opposing player and twisted his ankle. He thought he broke it. He was on the floor writhing in pain. We have it on videotape. You can hear my wife in the video shouting, “Stop the game! Stop the game!” and then you can hear me saying “Get up! Get up!”

Personalities like mine are clearly not a fan favorite. Inside Sutherland, whether they know it or not, nearly every one of my great colleagues is assigned some part of my personality to guard against and protect. I refer to one colleague as our “Department of State” while typically I am the “Department of Defense.” Everyone on staff has become my editor. We have a love/hate relationship – depending on the circumstances, they either love what I say, write, blog, tweet and post, or they hate it.

So why do organizations, like Sutherland, and businesses, like my dear friend’s, put us in charge?

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Hear Utah’s female political voices in new On Point show

onpointpic

Political blogger Holly Richardson; Michelle Mumford, BYU Law School; Karen Peterson, “Utah Moms Care” blog; and Heather Groom, State School Board.

An all-women political panel – including Utah political figures such as Holly Richardson and state Sen. Deidre Henderson – discusses current events relating to Utah policy and politics every week during On Point, a new weekly videocast/podcast presented by Sutherland Institute.

In the most recent show, Richardson and Henderson discuss home school “ghost students,” the attorney general investigation, and increased government transparency.

Other panelists have included Michelle Mumford, assistant dean at the BYU Law School; Salt Lake Tribune reporter Brooke Adams; and state Sen. Luz Robles.

You can watch the half-hour On Point videos here on Sutherland’s YouTube channel.

Use this link to subscribe to the On Point podcast on iTunes.

Or use this link to subscribe to the RSS feed.

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Private lives and public policy

family beach sunsetA note to members of the Utah Senate and House of Representatives from Paul Mero, president of Sutherland Institute:

As I write this, I recognize I’m addressing a diverse audience. I recognize some legislators know me well, even personally. Other legislators don’t know me at all. I realize some legislators have high opinions of me and that other legislators have very low opinions of me.

Regardless of how well you know me or like me, we both have one thing in common: public policy. Creating public policy is what you do as legislators; and designing, shaping and influencing public policy is what my colleagues and I do at Sutherland Institute.

While I certainly look to be respected by legislators professionally – and I certainly want Sutherland Institute to be respected – I’ve never thought that my professional opinions would be considered more or less correct based on how well a legislator knows me personally. I believe a good idea is a good idea regardless of the messenger – although some messengers obviously can do the message harm.

To be more precise, I’ve never had the thought that if only a legislator really knew me personally, he or she would certainly know how serious, credible, passionate and thoughtful my opinions really are about the causes and issues I promote, let alone the correctness of my opinions.

My personal life and experiences are lessons to me, for sure. But I’ve never had the thought that my personal life and experiences make my professional public policy opinions any more or any less correct in the minds of policymakers. Continue reading

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Testimony on SB 251 (Amendments to Medicaid and Health Care)

sutherland file pictures 008Testimony presented by Derek Monson, director of public policy, Sutherland Institute, on Feb. 27 before the Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee regarding SB 251 – Amendments to Medicaid and Health Care:

Thank you Mr. Chair and members of the committee. I am Derek Monson with Sutherland Institute, and I am here to speak in opposition to SB 251. Thank you for giving me the chance to explain why.

At Sutherland we recognize the logic behind seeking to expand Utah’s Medicaid program per the vision of Obamacare. Utahns are paying taxes under Obamacare, so why not accept federal funding by expanding Medicaid in order to help Utahns in need, especially when the promise of that funding is so generous? When you focus on the short term, that approach – the path laid out by SB 251 – can make a lot of sense.

But when you expand your view to the long term, the logic for SB 251 falls apart. In part, this is because the “promise” of generous federal funding for expansion is really an empty promise. This conclusion becomes clear when you consider the U.S. Treasury’s own statements that federal spending policy “is not sustainable,” or when you consider that the long-term debt and financial obligations of the federal government, not even including Medicaid spending, are nearly equal to the household wealth of the entire country. Those facts become relevant to this discussion when you consider that Washington’s solution to these fiscal problems has been to cut spending to state and local governments – such as sequestration’s cuts to PILT funding – and to low-income Americans – such as the farm bill’s coming cuts to the food stamp program.

The logic for SB 251 also falls apart in the long term because of the risk that Utah taxpayers will not be protected when inevitable federal spending cuts happen.

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