Alito: Cherish liberty, contribute to public good

By Steve Lash
The Daily Record Newswire

 BALTIMORE, MD — Americans must never take for granted that they live in a country founded on religious freedom, Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito told a Catholic legal group in Baltimore recently.

“The people of this country cherish religious liberty,” Alito said. “It is vitally important for our country to remain true.”

Alito spoke after receiving the 2014 Man for All Seasons award from the St. Thomas More Society of Maryland, an association of Catholic lawyers, judges, law students and court personnel. Alito was chosen for what the group called his patriotism and devotion to the First Amendment.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori and Catholic groups have hailed Alito’s majority opinion this summer in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., finding closely-held businesses can opt out of a federal health insurance requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.

Alito urged the lawyers to practice what was preached at the Baltimore Archdiocese’s annual Red Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption. The mass, in which prayers are offered for guidance for those in the legal profession, was held immediately before the event at the Grand Historic Venue in Baltimore.

“It is not only possible to be a good lawyer, but a good person,” Alito said. “All of our work as lawyers should contribute to the public good.”

He noted that Thomas More was both “saint and lawyer.”

The concept of a Red Mass and honors for judges from religious groups have long drawn criticism from some corners, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State. However, one Maryland constitutional scholar remains untroubled by the practice.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, an outspoken critic of the Hobby Lobby decision, said in an interview before the event that he has no problem with Alito or any other justice receiving an award from a religious group.

“Supreme Court justices have First Amendment rights, too,” said Raskin, citing the right to association.

“He has a right to accept awards from people he wants to get awards from,” added Raskin, who teaches at American University’s Washington College of Law. “I’m more concerned with Justice Alito’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence than what he does on the weekend.”

In Hobby Lobby, the 5-4 court said imposing the requirement on closely held businesses that oppose contraception would violate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Alito’s majority opinion said some judges have erroneously held that RFRA does not apply to for profit, closely held companies — an argument that “flies in the face of modern corporate law,” he wrote.

The justice echoed that view in his remarks Thursday night.

Without mentioning Hobby Lobby or RFRA, Alito said Congress has enacted laws that provide greater religious freedom than embodied in the First Amendment.

The high court’s June decision left unanswered the extent to which nonprofits — such as charities, hospitals and schools — have a similar right to deny contraceptive coverage.

Lori has said the Hobby Lobby decision gives momentum to a separate legal challenge he has brought against the federal Affordable Care Act’s mandate as head of the Catholic Benefits Association, a Catholic employers’ cooperative.

On June 4, U.S. District Judge David L. Russell in Oklahoma City issued a preliminary injunction blocking federal enforcement of the ACA — popularly known as Obamacare — against the Catholic Benefits Association’s Catholic-owned nonprofit and for-profit businesses pending resolution of the litigation.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month ordered that the case be held in abeyance pending the appellate court’s resolution of three appeals presenting substantially the same legal question. The Denver-based 10th Circuit has scheduled oral arguments in those cases for Dec. 8.

Alito did not mention any of the Supreme Court’s work during his talk, but did discuss his law clerks, whom he called “very smart young lawyers but not very good comedians.”

To prove the point, Alito told a joke he had heard involving St. Peter threatening to sue Lucifer.

“How are you going to sue us?” Lucifer asked. “You have no lawyers up there.”