Religious Freedom, Religious Bullying

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.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “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.”

    Amazing that the same people who rail against the “nanny state” want to create nanny rules based on religions. Have these “Christians” forgotten the “render unto Caesar…” piece of their own book of rules?

    • kenofken

      They never believed that “render unto Caesar” bit, not for long. For 15 centuries or so, they got used to being Caesar’s boss.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Even worse, they became Caesar, presenting themselves as Jesus on earth. Such hypocrisy!

  • $113153118

    This tricky soup we have gotten into via the insistence on employee rather than single payer healthcare as resulted in this decision. I agree with many of your points, but what further worries me is the potential reach of this decision. Healthcare is a benefit that when it is provided by an employee. What other benefits could a company reasonably expect to define for its individual employees based on this ruling? What about the ability to choose what types of healthcare one gets? What if I, working for a Jehovah’s witness, cannot expect to have a blood transfusion covered? It seems as if more and more America is truly an oligarchy which our politicians, supported by private money interests, are convincing us is a democracy. I noticed especially when all the female Supreme Court Justices- and granted, no conservative female supreme court justice has yet to be appointed- rail against a second opinion which granted a non-profit(Wheaton College) to a provision in the Hobby Lobby decision that would have allowed the college to provide forms to have people seek their healthcare elsewhere. More and more, it feels like locally-based cooperatives that give people what they seek are the wave of the future- but I guess I am getting off topic. Thanks, John, for your post

  • Cat C-B

    Of course, it’s easy to see strengths when I agree with the underlying point–and I do. But I really liked your insight that “Our culture has the idea that paying for something means the right to
    control it.” And given the tilt of our democracy and our economy ever more in favor of plutocrats, that’s especially concerning. There’s a growing tendency to see “freedom” as synonymous with the free exercise of property rights by those with the most property–and simply to disregard the ways that harms the common interest.

    More and more wealth is being concentrated at the top. Combining that with the attitude that says that what wealthy individuals (or corporations run by wealthy individuals) can pay for they can dictate. And as you point out, “when it comes to our common obligations, this simply
    isn’t true.”

    Well put.

    • John Beckett

      Thanks, Cat. That’s why, as much as the live and let live concept of libertarianism appeals to me, I remain a liberal. Freedom means more than property rights, and we do have obligations to each other and to the common good.

  • Karen Rath

    I strongly disagree with you and I support the court’s decision. I am a Christian and Pagan both in my spiritual path, and in today’s political climate, it is Christians who are the most oppressed in the US and whose religious liberty is most threatened. I agree that healthcare should not be up to the employer, but when it is, that employer should not have to violate his or her conscience. I happen to be strongly opposed to abortion, so I am already appalled that anyone who opposed abortion should have to pay for it. I get your point about paying for execution drugs and I would add war to that. I am consistently pro-life, opposing war, capital punishment, abortion, and all forms of killing of humans except in self-defense, which includes a very tiny % of military, police, and individual actions. But it doesn’t matter if I personally agree with the owners of Hobby Lobby on religion or morality. Just because the government forces us through taxes to pay for things we oppose does not mean we must pass this intrusion onto employers. I don’t agree with Catholics on their opposition to all forms of artificial birth control, but I support the right of Catholic employers to refuse to pay for it. The same goes for Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions. I am a libertarian, and I don’t believe it even needs to be a matter of religion. Employers should not be forced to provide any healthcare, and if they choose to provide it, they should decide what’s included for whatever reason.

    It is NOT true that refusing to cover a particular product is pushing one’s religious view on another. It is true that forcing an employer to pay for a product that he or she considers to be against one’s religious beliefs is a violation of the first amendment, an argument not even used in this case, but which should have been. Part of the freedom to practice one’s religion is freedom from government intrusion that forces activities against one’s religious belief. I am a Mennonite, and men in my tradition as well as Quakers, Brethren, and others have refused military service fore religious reasons. The US government has provided conscientious objector status for this situation. Others go farther and hold back some taxes as war resistors, and the government does not accept that, but it should. The Amish are allowed to stop school after 8th grade and not pay FICA Social Security taxes because they take care of their own as part of their religious tradition and this is a good thing.

    It’s valid to bring up the moral murkiness of dealing with Chinese goods when that government is so appallingly pro-abortion and so violating of religious liberty and other human rights. However, it is very hard to avoid Chinese goods and still make a profit. Hobby Lobby, by the way, starts employees at $14/hour, so they should be able to afford the few items not included if they want them. If the company boycotted Chinese goods, they might not be able to provide such good wages and such affordable products for customers.

    It’s the government that is the bully, not Hobby Lobby. And it keeps growing and growing in tyranny under the last 2 presidents, and really since the beginning of the 20th century. I am grateful to the 4 conservatives on the Supreme Court, and to Kennedy for being correct more often than not, for usually getting it right in these issues, and for protecting us to some extent from a government that has gotten so far away from the founding principles of liberty.

    • John Beckett

      Thank you for the long comment. Your socially conservative and libertarian political beliefs are clearly evident in your opinion, and while I obviously disagree, you are certainly entitled to advocate for your position.

      As I told Cat in the comment above, I am not a libertarian because “freedom” means more than property rights, and because we do have obligations to each other and to our greater society.

      If you truly believe in liberty, I would encourage you to look beyond the anti-government rhetoric and look at the facts. It is corporations, not government, which are the greatest threat to liberty. My employer has far more control over my life than the government, and traditional checks on corporate power (unions and government) are highly ineffective.

      Where you are factually wrong is your claim that Christians are oppressed in this country. You mistake loss of privilege for oppression. When has a candidate for office been slandered for being a Christian? (perhaps the wrong kind of Christian, as with President Obama) When has a Christian been refused the right to give a public invocation, as with the Wiccan in Birmingham? When has a Christian been fired for asking for Christmas or Easter off from work? When has a Christian church been denied tax-exempt status because “it’s not a real religion”, as with various Pagan, atheist, and even UU groups?

      For all our move toward a more pluralistic, more secular society, Christians and Christianity still dominate our culture and our politics. I understand some Christians resent being placed on a level playing field with other religions, but equal treatment is not oppression.

      • Karen Rath

        I am considered socially conservative on the abortion issue, but I do not see matters of life and death as “social issues.” I support gay rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of all drugs and prostitution, and thus I consider myself libertarian and liberal on social issues.

        Christians are not killed in the US for their faith, but there is a very well-organized and common attack on expressions of Christian beliefs in public. There are anecdotal reports of school children not allowed to give reports on Jesus and schools that don’t allow celebration of Christmas when they do the winter solstice. Christians are increasingly not allowed to pray in public settings. You may see these kinds of things as loss of privilege, but I see them as oppression. I do not believe in white, male, or Christian privilege in the US. There are incidences of sexism against women, racism against minorities, and bigotry against other religions, but right now it is white, male, heterosexual Christians who are discriminated against the most and who are bashed the most.

        • gorm_sionnach

          You can not possibly expect anyone to believe the statement “…but right now it is white, male, heterosexual Christians who are discriminated against the most and who are bashed the most”, the Universe caters to the every whim of that demographic, in every conceivable way possible, because they are the cultural “default”.
          Politically, economically, socially and culturally, that demographic has overwhelming privilege and prestige. Their worldview is represented, reproduced and omnipresent at just about every level, to the great detriment of just about everyone else.
          They are the hegemony, and the hegemony necessarily, can not be discriminated against, because they hold the tools (they make the tools) of discrimination and oppression.
          With the dearth of real, actual discrimination which occurs on a daily basis, the last thing we need to worry about are the imagined slights against the most powerful among us.

  • skyblue

    Very well said. In the past few days, I’ve read quite a bit of commentary on this decision, and yours is my favorite take on it so far.

    I suppose we will never know for sure how many people would like to change jobs (whether for career development, moving, or whatever), or work less hours to spend time with family, or quit and start their own business, but didn’t have the freedom to do so because of health care needs. What a difference that freedom would make in so many situations.

  • Natalie Reed

    “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”. As I understand it, they only have to have a health plan available for employees that does not cost the employee more than 9.5% of their annual income. Which means that many employees will pay for at least part of their health care plan (I pay for half of mine and all of my husbands). So, under the law Hobby Lobby does NOT have an obligation to pay for its employees health care, only to make sure an affordable plan is available to them. They are free to consider the part the employee pays as being the part that covers birth control. I am not privy to Hobby Lobby benefits, and perhaps it is their policy to pay for their employees health care in full, but it is not the Affordable Care Act that makes them do so.

  • Ieshea

    My take on this is a Business is to make money,I don’t care what religion the business owner is part of,the main object is to make money,that said however if you make the decision to have religion part of your business then that Business should be forced to make the decision all the way across the board not just the parts they want to use.My main problem is Healthcare is Healthcare,if the employee is paying any part of it,then the business owner should have no say in what should be covered and what should not be covered.Once again a Business is to Make Money not to advance your religious viewpoints especially if you as the Business owners have dealings in any way with the very things that you are”against”.