From the Pilgrims of 1620 to today, the issue of religious freedom has never been far from the front of American society. Yet it seems that what is called religious freedom all too often is closer to religious bullying. The Puritans escaped persecution in England and promptly started hanging Quakers in Massachusetts. Mormons were run out of Illinois in the 19th century – in the 21st century they helped finance the campaign against marriage equality and just last week made headlines excommunicating Kate Kelly for advocating for the ordination of women. There are more examples than I care to consider.
This week the issue of religious freedom came up in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an employer can pick and choose which health services to provide to its employees based on the religious beliefs of its leaders, so long as those beliefs are sincerely held.
I’ve read the ruling and the dissent. I’ve thought long and hard about this case and what I wanted to say about it. And as much as I’d like to make a sweeping claim to absolute truth, I think Justice Alito got one thing right in the majority opinion: this case has conflicting priorities and needed to be decided narrowly.
While I will scream to the mountaintops that “corporate personhood” is a pernicious lie, I do not argue that individuals cannot bring their religious beliefs and practices into the workplace and into the marketplace. I would be quite hypocritical if I did, since I try to exemplify and promote my Pagan values of honesty, reciprocity, compassion, and reverence for Nature in my professional work. The owners of Hobby Lobby have the right to run their business according to their religious values.
But that right is not absolute. I see three reasons why this case should have been decided against Hobby Lobby.
Through the political process we have chosen to fund our health care through employers. This is, I think, a monumentally stupid choice. Employers have their hands full trying to run their businesses – they are not experts on health care, they have only a tangential interest in insuring it is provided properly, and they have a strong personal interest in minimizing their costs. But as with so many established practices, those who benefit from the current system (i.e. – drug and insurance companies) fight any attempts to reform it.
That’s another rant for another time. What’s important here is that under our current social contract and under current law, Hobby Lobby has an obligation to pay for its employees’ health care – and health care includes reproductive health.
Our culture has the idea that paying for something means the right to control it. But when it comes to our common obligations, this simply isn’t true.
It pains my conscience that I am forced to pay taxes to purchase execution drugs. This goes beyond my political opinion that our criminal justice system needs to be seriously reformed and our prison system drastically shrunk. The State of Texas is killing people and I am forced to participate in it, against some of my strongest religious beliefs. Likewise, the federal government spends the tax money of committed pacifists to support their wars of empire.
We don’t get to pick and choose which common obligations we support and which we decline to fund. As much as the libertarians among us would argue that we should, practicality insists we cannot. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are great for funding art projects; they’re not so great for funding roads, schools, national defense – or health care. Our democratic input into the funding process is through elections, not through the power of the purse.
Hobby Lobby has an obligation to pay for its employees’ health care, and health care includes reproductive health.
Though apparently it did not come up in the Supreme Court hearing, some have raised doubts as to the sincerity of the Hobby Lobby owners’ beliefs about contraception and abortion. This is the second reason why this case should have been decided the other way. Hobby Lobby has invested in the same companies who make the birth control drugs they refuse to cover. And they purchase countless products from China, whose policies on abortion and family planning are at odds with Hobby Lobby’s stated values.
Making hard choices in support of your religious beliefs and values is a sign of spiritual maturity. Making easy choices for yourself and forcing hard choices on others is not.
And that brings me to the third reason why this ruling is wrong. Those who support Hobby Lobby argue that they have not made it impossible for their employees to obtain contraception, and this is true. They’ve just made it harder. But for those near the bottom of the economic order – which includes most people who work in retail – the difference between “hard” and “impossible” is pretty small. In what can be a critical life decision, Hobby Lobby’s owners are attempting to substitute their values and their judgment for the values and judgment of their employees, not through intellectual discourse or moral suasion but through economic coercion.
If the wrong contraceptive decision is made, it is the employees and not the owners of Hobby Lobby who will bear the consequences. Health care decisions belong with the individuals involved and their medical and spiritual advisors, not their employers.
Before the ruling was issued, I was certain it would be a 5-4 decision. The four conservative justices would rule for the corporation and the four liberal justices would rule for the individual. The decision came down, as it does so often, to Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy, sadly, picked the wrong side. I hope this ruling really is as limited as Justice Alito says it is and lower courts do not attempt to use it to allow discrimination in public accommodations as many in the religious right would like to be able to do.
Religious freedom means you are free to believe, worship, and practice as you see fit. It means you are free to advocate for your religion in the public square. It means you are free to live your life by your values and to encourage others to do the same.
It does not mean you are free to coerce others to believe, practice, or behave as you would prefer, nor does it mean you are free to ignore your obligations to our wider society.
That’s not freedom. That’s bullying.