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Big Yellow Taxi

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February 2014

They never cease to amaze.  For centuries, magicians have dazzled young and old alike.  Some believe that magic goes back to 50,000 B.C., when hunters drew animals on walls in hopes they would appear for a kill.  As magic progressed, it became associated with witchcraft and the occult.  The 16th century saw the development of entertainment magic, and has it developed.  Nowadays, illusionists can make the Statue of Liberty disappear right before our eyes.

But not all disappearing acts are the stuff of smoke and mirrors.  Many things once here are now gone.  Hawaii, for some people a little bit of paradise, has been labeled the “endangered species capitol of the world.”  Coincidentally, Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit Big Yellow Taxi was set there.  She sang about the loss of things dear.  The song’s jaunty refrain speaks a haunting truth: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone; they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”  We give up the good for what can never measure up.  Sometimes we cannot regain what we have surrendered.

Our biggest losses are probably not the tangibles.  The sit-down family meal-a time for sharing and binding-is going the way of the dinosaur, replaced by sports, meetings, and whatever else we cram into our days.  Much worse is the threatened loss of our religious liberty.  It is the most basic of all freedoms, and for a reason.  Freedom lies in the ability to pursue what is objectively good and true.  At its highest level, freedom is the pursuit of God, the all-good.  He gives our lives purpose and meaning, and in Him we find our true happiness.

Religious freedom means more than the ability to join an organized religion, more than the ability to hold certain beliefs.  It also covers our exercise of those beliefs.  Our religious practices are as important as our beliefs, for practices affirm belief.  They operate in conjunction with our conscience, the center where God helps us to sort right from wrong so that we may serve Him and our fellow man.  Martyrs have willingly surrendered their lives rather than their religious beliefs. Thousands others have died in battle to protect our cherished right.

In 2009, President Obama gave a commencement address at Notre Dame during which he spoke about his desire for a “sensible” protection of conscience.  He didn’t explain his meaning back then, but it has become clear.  Under current federal regulations, employer health-care policies must provide coverage for contraceptives, including drugs that can cause abortions.   The HHS mandate exempts religious organizations, but not all religiously orientated ones. And it doesn’t exempt for-profit organizations holding those same conscientious objections.  The Administration is not backing away from its mandate.  Neither are those who oppose it.   Scores of lawsuits have been filed.  Two are particularly noteworthy.

The Little Sisters of the Poor have been serving the elderly poor since the mid-19th century French revolutionary era.  It was a time of violence and great poverty.  A young adult, Jeanne Jugan, heard God’s call but did not know where He was leading.  One cold night, she learned.  Coming upon a blind, paralyzed old woman, Jugan carried the woman to her own bed.  Jugan moved to the attic; she never made it back to her room.  God led other elderly to her; young women came to help.  A religious order was born out of their love.  The Little Sisters deeply believe in the sanctity of all life.  Though not required to directly comply with the HHS mandate, they refuse to sign an exemption form that would obligate their health insurer to provide the contraception coverage.  For their refusal, the Administration has threatened them with fines of $100 per day, per employee-fines that would severely cripple their ministry.  The U.S. Supreme Court has granted a stay protecting them from the fines.  For now.

David Green started small.  In 1970, he ran a miniature picture frame company out his garage.  Two years later, he opened his first store with only 300 square feet of retail space.  Today Hobby Lobby has 588 stores nationwide and is one of the country’s largest private companies.  Devoutly Christian, the Green family operates the store under biblical principles, including Sunday closure.  They strongly oppose paying for or providing insurance coverage for drugs that will cause abortions.  The Greens want an exemption from the mandate.  The Administration refuses.  It argues that the for-profit business created by the Greens cannot hold a religious belief-even though the Greens do.  And the Administration argues that it has a compelling interest in insuring that women have employer-provided access to contraception.

The two cases demonstrate the scary degree to which government officials will go to push contraception and abortion.  They would not compel orthodox Jewish deli owners to sell pork even though customers need to eat and many would choose pork.  Yet they are willing to coerce violations of fundamental religious beliefs to further their pro-contraception, pro-abortion agenda. So the legal questions give way to a moral one: just who gives us our freedoms-God or government?  It comes down to a matter of our natural rights.  One of the greatest advances in human history has been the recognition that our basic rights to life and liberty come from God, not man.  Government exists to guarantee our God-given rights, not to alter or destroy them.  Government should protect conscientious belief, not tell us which ones are “sensible.”  For if it can tell us, then we are in far worse trouble than we imagine.  It is no a big step from ordering that we must provide contraception to ordering that it must be used.  It is happening in China and India right now-with disastrous results.  Perhaps this Administration would not do it, but can anyone guarantee what future administrations will do?

These cases prove that elections do matter.  As the Supreme Court gets set to consider these cases, pray for the wisdom of the justices.  Religious freedom is a little bit of Paradise that would be such a mistake to surrender.

Lord knows, we don’t need another parking lot.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.

©  Paul V. Esposito 2014.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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