Religious freedom as we have known it stands in the balance this week as the United States Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in the cases of Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and Conestoga Woods v. Sebelius. We are once again entrusting nine justices in the high court with the responsibility to protect the very nature of religious freedom as defined by the Constitution in this country. I do not believe it is overstating the case to say that ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby will fundamentally alter a definition that has stood for more than two centuries.
Unfortunately, some people in the faith community have taken a shortsighted approach to religious freedom over the last few years in an attempt to turn the First Amendment into an opt-out from any public policy with which they do not agree. This misguided approach has been used as a battering ram against marriage equality, tax law and — in this case — the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
If the high court adopts the narrow-minded approach of the religious right, the religious and legal landscape will become almost unrecognizable. What happens when the rights traditionally reserved for individuals are extended to corporations? Left up to the religious whims of employers and private individuals, the civil rights advancements for racial and religious minorities, women and the LGBT community will most certainly be eviscerated. Private establishments could be granted the right to refuse service to customers who have been divorced or have had abortions, who commit adultery or fail to live up to a limitless number of potential religious standards. Nearly any business regulation could be challenged on religious grounds, and judges will be forced to make ecclesiastical evaluations or allow our entire legal code to crumble.
Hopefully, the Court will rule for what I consider the more traditional, and dare I say more conservative, view of religious liberty. That decision could prompt a return to a saner debate on these issues. The First Amendment should be understood as it always has been: a guaranteed protection for the rights of religious minorities and unshakable assurance that one’s religion does not define one’s relationship to the government. Gone, I pray, would be attempts to use religion to create a private right to discriminate or the ability to opt out of laws that one finds unsavory. The age of so-called “conscience clauses” and the over-broad religious exemption would finally begin to wane.
The debate at the Supreme Court this week centers on the rights of women to access contraception under the Affordable Care Act. When Congress passed this law they recognized that there was a social, economic and medical good in empowering women to make their own family-planning decisions. To this end, Congress required all employer-sponsored health insurance to cover free access to contraception.
The ACA takes care to exempt houses of worship and to accommodate certain religious organizations, as American law has traditionally done when a determined social good conflicts with some religious traditions. This much is the promise of the First Amendment, that the government cannot force a religious institution to violate its beliefs. That assurance has proven good for government and good for religion. The core question of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods is whether, for the first time in history, this exemption should be expanded to for-profit secular corporations. That is the only question in these cases, and that is the decision that will push us over or draw us back from the ledge.
However, the plaintiffs in this case have been working to shift the focus to a very different question. Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, has taken to the media to explain his side of the story. He discusses his three-decade commitment to his church and to living a Christian life. He emphasizes his philanthropic donations to Christian organizations and causes, and he lauds policies, such as closing on Sundays, which he has implemented in his stores to allow his employees to live a Christian life. While I am sure Mr. Green’s beliefs are sincere and his acts are commendable, they should have no bearing on this case.
Along with many others who respect religious freedom, I will watch anxiously to see if the justices are smart enough to see through this dangerous attempt to redefine one of the foundations of our nation. Despite narrow sectarian pressure, they need to protect religious freedom — not merely for a few, but for all.