Read Your First Amendment

12.03.135:45 AM ET

When Religion and Liberty Collide

How right-wing conservatives are using the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case on contraception to force their religious views on the nation.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

— First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America


When early American settlers fled Europe to seek the shelter of new shores, the religious freedom for which they were searching had two components. Indeed, our founding fathers and mothers were pursuing freedom *of* religion—the freedom to practice whatever faith they chose, free from retribution or discrimination by the government or their fellow citizens.

But the earliest of our national brethren were also motivated by freedom *from* religion. In the 1600s and 1700s, enforced uniformity of religion was common throughout Europe—an extension of the belief that there was one true religion and it was the job of government to enforce it. Persecution of religious minorities was common, whether it was Protestants persecuting Catholics or Catholics persecuting Protestants or both persecuting Mennonites. Yes, the settlers who came to America wanted to express their own religious beliefs, but an equal if not greater motivation was escaping the reality of religious tyranny embedded in government.

To put it mildly, our forbearers would be appalled by how right-wing conservatives are trying to use government to force their religious views on all of us.

Make no mistake, this is what Hobby Lobby wants to do—use government to push a conservative religious agenda. After all, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, signed by the President and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, which would among other things ensure that all health insurance plans in the United States offer basic levels of coverage, including coverage for contraception. That is a secular goal rooted in basic principles of public health as well as economics (that it is more cost effective to cover birth control than maternity care and pediatric care) not to mention a basic respect for a woman’s right to control her own reproductive choices. And the law provides for individual freedom *of* religion—individuals are, of course, free not to access contraception, and religious institutions are even exempted from contraception coverage requirements.

Hobby Lobby wants to go one step further. This corporation, which already takes advantage of special government benefits by incorporating as a private business in the first place (entitling Hobby Lobby to tax benefits and liability shelters to which individuals alone are not entitled), wants to use its government-created corporate status with the help of government-run courts not just to express its religion on a poster or what have you but to force its employees to comply with the supposed religion of the corporation’s founders. This is, plain and simple, a corporation trying to contort government to impose the religious views of some onto many. This is precisely what our nation was founded against.

Conservatives want government out of the economy, despite the fact that even the godfather of capitalism Adam Smith argued that government plays a critical role in establishing the playing field for private markets and fixing inherent inequalities in capitalism. And yet right-wing conservatives paradoxically embrace government when it comes to imposing their religion on the rest of us—in the case of trying to ban abortion or limit access to contraception or pushing restrictions on same-sex marriage. Freedom *of* religion would allow secular civic institutions to recognize all families while leaving various religious institutions and individuals to have their personal views and act (or not act) accordingly. But right-wing conservatives want to go one step further and use government laws to impose their anti-gay views on the vast majority of Americans whose values tell us that all God’s creatures are created equal and should be treated equally.

This desire to impose religion on others is even embedded within the constant desire on the part of many conservatives to critique and other-ize President Obama’s religion, simultaneously claiming he’s a Muslim while condemning his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In the right-wing political vision, religion isn’t a shining hill of pluralism but a dark cave of conformity in which all non-believers are condemned.

Thomas Jefferson might not have been able to foresee gay marriage—the man didn’t even have enough democratic imagination to see the hypocrisy in his ownership of slaves—but you can be sure that he would be mortified to see any religious community in America try to use the government he and others created to impose religion on others.

In the groundbreaking 1947 Supreme Court decision Everson v. Board of Education, in which the Court determined that the Bill of Rights applied to state governments as well as the federal government, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another ... in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State' ... That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

The “separation between church and State” which Jefferson articulated and the Supreme Court affirmed wasn’t just about freedom *of* religion—the state leaving churches and the individuals within them free to express whatever religion they desired. There was the other side of the coin, too —freedom *from* religion, freedom from the state passing laws to aid one religion or any religion or prefer one over another, and by natural extension, freedom from anyone using government to impose their religious views on anyone else. Freedom *from* religion is at the core of our nation’s founding and is the essence of our laws and practices ever since. Right-wing conservatives professing to uphold and impose traditional values in America are perversely undermining the values on which America was founded.