Hobby Lobby

03.23.14

Religious Freedom, or a License to Discriminate?

Religious conservatives are moving to build protection for discrimination into the law. If the Supreme Court lets them, we could end up with a country that can’t be governed.

On Tuesday, March 25, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments from Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of craft stores, whose CEO objects—on religious grounds—to funding certain types of contraception under the Affordable Care Act. If the Supreme Court makes good on presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that “corporations are people too,” investing them with “freedom of religion,” there will be no end to such claims in the courts.

If all this reminds you of the anti-anti-discrimination bill recently vetoed by the governor of Arizona and other such “license to discriminate” bills popping up all over the country, you are paying attention. These cases about funding for contraception and the states’ attempts to allow discrimination based on religion are two garments cut from the same cloth. Both stand for the proposition that for-profit business entities, not just humans, have the capacity for conscience and expressing devotion to God required to exercise religion and can thus be exempted from following laws each business owner doesn’t like.

There is already a generous and broad religious exemption for religious bodies—a hole wide enough to drive a Pope-mobile through, in my opinion. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious affiliations have the authority to set their own rules and practices, according to their beliefs, without interference from government. What is at issue in the Hobby Lobby case is one man’s religious beliefs which, because he is the CEO of the company, he wants to impose on the 14,000 or so of his employees.

The license (or “exemption”) to ignore anti-discrimination laws based on an individual’s religious beliefs would set a dangerous precedent, and one which has already been disallowed over other issues in our American history. When African-Americans won the fight for equal treatment under the law in the 1960s, there were plenty of people who objected, some based on religion. But a lunch counter owner was required under the new laws to serve anyone, of any race, who walked in and sat down. There were many who disagreed with the Supreme Court’s Loving vs. Virginia ruling that interracial marriages were legal, mostly on religious grounds. But anti-miscegenation laws (still on the books in 13 states at the time of the ruling) were struck down by the Supreme Court, and regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs about interracial marriage, those marriages had to be allowed and recognized.

Now imagine if business corporations were treated as people, capable of exercising religion and such an exemption/license to violate anti-discrimination laws were granted. If my religion told me that the races were unequal and should be kept separate, I could declare my restaurant to be for “whites only.” I could refuse my services as a caterer for interracial marriage receptions. I could refuse to offer my services to Jews, Muslims or anyone not of my religion. A single mother could be turned down for a loan on the basis of a loan officer’s judgment that her morality didn’t live up to his religious standards. Gay and lesbian couples could be denied a hotel room—and even medical services—by those who found their “lifestyle” religiously objectionable. And while we’re at it, where does this corporation practice its religion, and how?  Where does it worship and pray? Wherein does its conscience and soul reside?

Further, imagine what would happen if the owners of Hobby Lobby and others were allowed to deny their employees a health insurance plan which included access to contraceptives, to which they object. Would other business owners be allowed to deny employees health insurance plans that covered blood transfusions? Could owners who objected to vaccinations, on religious grounds, delete such healthcare provisions from their coverage? How would judges go about drawing these lines? There would be no end to the chaos that would ensue, making the country virtually ungovernable.

The separation of church (synagogue, mosque, etc.) and state is a foundational pillar of American democracy. But while granting freedom of belief and religious practice, the Bill of Rights does not promise the right to practice one’s religion at the expense of the rights of others. 

Do the religious beliefs of Hobby Lobby’s CEO really trump an employee’s right to access the reproductive healthcare choices provided under the Affordable Care Act? Are we really ready to give corporations the right to control the lives of their employees, all in the name of a corporation’s “religion?”

Make no mistake. You can support religious liberty and still reject Hobby Lobby’s arguments.  But a Hobby Lobby victory risks paving the way for corporations to use religion to control the lives of others and to trample their religious freedom and their right to equal treatment under the law.

Religious institutions and religious individuals don’t need—and most of us don’t want—this kind of “protection.” 

The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson is the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC.