The Supreme Court handed down its Hobby Lobby decision this week, and it was as bad as many of us had feared. In a 5-4 ruling (of course), five conservative male justices handed down the worst church-state decision in years, possibly even worse than the atrocious Hein decision: that a privately held corporation can impose limits on how workers use the health insurance they’ve earned as part of their compensation.
For better or for worse, past cases about religious exemption have turned on the right of individuals to opt out of laws that conflicted with their beliefs: like Quakers and the draft, or Native Americans and peyote. Never before, as far as I know, has a religious-freedom case recognized a right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others who don’t share them. Even worse, this case wrote an absurdity into law: that a for-profit corporation can exercise religion as if it were a human being.
That said, I don’t expect this decision to make an immediate practical difference. The court strongly hinted that the Obama administration can implement the same workaround they already put in place for religious non-profits, requiring insurance companies to cover contraception at no cost as part of a separate package. The justices as much as said that this solution is constitutional, which is one small bright spot in this ruling, considering that religious anti-choice groups are fighting against that as well. It will mean more red tape and more needless complexity, but it seems likely that few if any women will actually lose access to contraception as a result of this ruling.
What I’m more worried about is the legal chaos this decision will unleash, as corporations suddenly get religion and demand exemptions from all kinds of generally applicable laws. It’s not hard to imagine a few of the ways this could play out:
- What if a private corporation has a religious objection to labor unions, based on its belief that all people should submit to godly authority without question? Would they be allowed to fire employees for attempting to organize?
- What if a private corporation has a religious objection to parental leave, based on its belief that women who have babies should devote their lives to motherhood and homemaking? Would they be allowed to fire women for getting pregnant?
- What if a private corporation has a religious objection to paid sick time, based on its belief that God will heal those who ask for it and that injury or disease is a proof of a sinful lack of faith? Would they be allowed to fire workers who got sick or got hurt on the job?
- What if a private corporation has a religious objection to environmental laws, based on its belief that God gave us the Earth to use as we see fit? Would they be allowed to ignore laws regulating pollution or waste dumping?
- What if a private corporation has a religious objection to minimum wage laws, based on its interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard? Would they be allowed to pay their workers as little as they choose?
I admit, I was confident that the court would rule against Hobby Lobby. I believed that the prospect of unleashing this kind of havoc would be too much for even conservative justices to swallow. As it turns out, they saw this iceberg looming as well; but their attempt to address it may have made the problem even worse.
Specifically, the court said that religious objections to birth control must be accommodated, but that equally strong religious objections to other kinds of laws, like the Civil Rights Act (to which racist business owners likewise wanted religious exemptions), needn’t necessarily be. But this distinction is completely arbitrary. They didn’t say why objections to birth control “count” more than objections to other laws; they made no attempt to explain what the underlying principle is, or even if there is one. Worse, the court didn’t completely bar the door against future lawsuits – they hinted that other demands for religious exemption might be granted as well. As legal experts have recognized, this was a decision of startling breadth.
As far as most corporations are concerned, this could be a gamble worth taking. After all, what’s the risk in dropping a measly few million dollars on legal fees if it could win them a far more valuable exemption from the law, especially since the highest court in the land has just signaled its friendliness to these kinds of claims? This seems likely to lead to a blizzard of lawsuits and mass confusion among lower courts as they try to follow the Supreme Court’s unclear trail.
If there’s one lesson we can take away from this ruling, it’s that the only thing religion stands for or cares about anymore is controlling other people’s sex lives. That is the heart and soul of religious belief, the most sacred and precious calling of the world’s great faiths: telling everyone else where they can and can’t put their genitals. All other aspects of religion are secondary at best; this is the one that the law must never infringe.
In the long run, the churches’ all-consuming obsession with sexual policing will make them objects of ridicule and mockery and further undermine their moral standing. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ll be dealing with the mischief of this ruling for a generation or more, and it’s small consolation that many of the people who cheered this outcome will soon learn, too late, what it’s like to work for a boss who can force you to heed religious beliefs that aren’t yours.