Establishing Religion?

Should private companies be able to establish the religious beliefs of their owners as the norm for their employees? We need an ongoing, public, exploration of our differing religious ethics. We need inter religious dialogue so that we begin to understand what is really at stake when we talk about the establishment of religion, or the prohibiting of its free expression.

As I write the owners of Hobby Lobby, a large chain of retail stores, are engaged in a legal battle with the Obama administration over whether those owners can be obliged to provide insurance coverage for their employees that has provision for birth control. The central legal question according to published reports is whether the government’s responsibility to act in the public interest overrides the individual’s right to manage his or her employees according to the dictates of his or her religious beliefs.

This isn’t purely a constitutional issue. The first amendment states: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Yet it doesn’t define religion and whether the exercise of religion is a corporate or personal matter. Thus the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 seeks to define more clearly just who is protected by the first amendment to the constitution by extending those protections to individuals, and not only religious organizations and their members and leaders.

But the Hobby Lobby case, and many others, isn’t just a matter of the individual freedom of a business owner in the face of mandated behavior by the government. It appears from at least one public statement I’ve heard that the Obama administration will argue that this is also about the individual religious freedom of employees. In theory their ability to make health care decisions according to the dictates of their conscience is infringed if the full range of options for health care are not covered by insurance. An employer who limits the scope of insurance coverage on the basis of his religious beliefs is effectively imposing those beliefs on employees.

A counter argument is that since these medical options are available on the open market the employee still has a choice. And the counter-counter argument is that the cost of options on the open market makes them so expensive as to preclude them being an actual option.

So this isn’t just about birth control or even medicine. It is about a complex matrix of relations between an individual’s free exercise of his or her religion, and the government’s mandate to both protect that freedom and to act in the public interest when that public interest may restrict that freedom.

And it is forgotten that a Christian concern about birth control is by no means the only religious concern about government mandates.

There are religions (including many forms of Islam) that teach that all modern forms of insurance are prohibited, because insurance is essentially a means of predicting and accounting for the future. And in this it infringes on God’s sovereignty. And there are Christian groups that insist that virtually all medical interventions are immoral. Could an employer deny all insurance benefits to employees on these basis?

There are religions that teach that blood transfusions are immoral. Could an employer insist that any insurance he or she provides to employees specifically disallow payment for blood transfusions? On the basis that these are readily available for a fee and that the employee himself or herself can pay out of pocket?

Or to go a step further. There are religions that teach that God prohibits the human consumption of all sorts of animal products commonly found in various medications. Could an employer insist that an insurance provided must explicitly exclude coverage of medicines that have, for example, gelatin?

And finally, different religions have ethical mandates that clearly influence the ways in which individuals can spend and invest their money. Could an employer insist that the employer’s contribution to a personal pension play never be used to invest in companies making forbidden products (alcohol, tobacco, guns, etc)?

Who owns, in other words, the monetary value of an employee benefit? When it is spent, whose religious beliefs and practices are at stake?

I would argue that the Hobby Lobby and indeed the many other institutions currently challenging the Obama administration are effectively seeking to do to their employees what the constitution forbids the government from doing: establishing religion. What they haven’t considered is that Christianity isn’t the only religion in the US, and that Christian employers are not the only ones who will wish to carry their personal religious mandates into the lives of their employees. If they looked a little more broadly they would see that the rights they demand for themselves might result in other employers imposing on their sons and daughters ethical mandates that they find repugnant.

This is why we need an ongoing, public, exploration of our differing religious ethics. We need inter-religious dialogue so that we begin to understand what is really at stake when we talk about the establishment of religion, or the prohibiting of its free expression.

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