Can an Unjust Law Be a Law at All?: The Contraceptive Mandate

I have previously written about the Health and Human Services guideline to the Affordable Care Act (aka, ObamaCare) that will require religious institutions to provide all FDA-approved contraceptives to their employees at no charge through their group health insurance plans. I believe that such a mandate violates religious liberty and freedom of conscience that is guaranteed protection under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Today the United States Senate voted to table the Blunt Amendment which would have protected those who object to this new insurance mandate. The vote was predictably along party lines with all but one Republican favoring the amendment and all but three Democrats opposing the amendment.

As this new mandate proceeds to take the form of law, we need to ask the questions:

Is this law unjust?

Can an unjust law be a law at all?

In relation to the justice of this law, I have previously argued that it violates the freedom of religion granted by the First Amendment. In addition, I believe this law is unjust because it violates God’s eternal law of protection of innocent life. We see in Genesis 1:27 that human beings are created in the image of God. Thus, the inherent value of humans begins at conception. Any attempt to end life after conception (e.g., Plan B, Ella, abortion, etc.) is a violation of the eternal law of God.

Thomas Aquinas gives us a good historical perspective from which to evaluate the justice of human law. Aquinas writes:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived. . . . On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good . . . either in respect of the end . . . ; or in respect to the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him;—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. . . . Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing idolatry, or to anything contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, we ought to obey God rather than men.

If we look at this mandate through a Thomistic lens, the contraception requirement is unjust on both levels. It is contrary to the human good because it goes beyond the power granted to the federal government and imposes an unequal burden on society. The Constitution does not grant the federal government the power to require purchase of health insurance nor to tell health insurance plans what must be offered and for how much money. Those with religious convictions against such birth control are burdened with violating their consciences. If no such mandate existed, those with no religious conviction against contraception could buy it on the open market. Those with convictions against it would not be unduly burdened.

Second, this mandate is opposed to the divine good because it violates the law of God to protect innocent human life. In Psalm 139:13–16, we read that God forms children in the womb, and He has planned our days before we are ever born. God is intimately involved in the creation of life from the very moment of conception. God values human life and calls upon us to protect it (Exodus 20:13).

That leads to the second question: Can an unjust law be a law at all? Turning to Aquinas again, he answers with a resounding “No!” Speaking of unjust laws, Aquinas writes, “The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says, a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.”

Believing this new mandate to be unjust and opposed to both the common good and divine good, I applaud Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and his colleagues for attempting to protect religious liberty. Those 51 senators who voted to table the amendment, effectively killing it, should recognize they have violated the sacred trust of their office to govern justly for the American people. We should strive for just laws enacted by our government and condemn unjust laws that are in fact no law at all.


Tom Cohen and Dan Merica, “Senate kills controversial ‘conscience’ amendment,” CNN, March 1, 2012.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I–II.96.4.

My previous articles on this issue include: ObamaCare and the First Amendment and To Mr. Obama, From a Conscientious Objector.

Aquinas on Friendship

Last week I went to the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Francisco, CA. I had the privilege of presenting my paper, “The Forgotten Virtue of Friendship: Thomistic Friendship and Contemporary Christian Ethics.” This paper was an abridged version of a chapter out of my dissertation. I have posted a copy of the paper on the Resources page of my blog.

Without sharing the entire substance of the paper in this post, let me describe why the idea of friendship is important. In our contemporary culture, friendship has become more of an expression of social networks than a true, intimate relationship between individuals. This new understanding of friendship has diluted the robust meaning of friendship that has historically been a part of ethical thought since the time of the Greek philosophers. Online applications, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, measure friendship by the number of followers or people in your circle. However, in most of these applications, there is no measure of intimacy or characteristics found within the historical understanding of friendship that shed any light on whether or not a true relationship actually exists.

Aquinas offered one of the most substantial discussions of friendship within Christian ethical thought. My paper was an attempt to show how we can recover some elements of this robust, love-based friendship for contemporary ethics without succumbing to the situation-based ethics of Joseph Fletcher or the community-based ethics of Stanley Grenz. My full dissertation makes these connections in a much more substantial way.