In the next few weeks, the Supreme Court of the United States will rule on two cases taken up this term: Hobby Lobby vs. Sibelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs. Sibelius. Both claim to be about the freedom to practice one’s own religion without interference by the government, but both are actually about whether or not broad exemptions to disregard antidiscrimination laws should be granted to people—and corporations—who oppose them on religious grounds.
Most embarrassing of all is the specter of people asking in the name of religion for permission to discriminate. This flies in the face of what every world religion claims in their own version of the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Such a “golden rule” is the great common teaching among all religions, an understanding shared with non-religious people, atheists, humanists and most civilized societies. Why would some religious people want an exemption from following a core teaching of their religion?
Ostensibly, the devoutly religious owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores (no one is disputing the Greens’ sincerity or devotion) do not want to fund the contraception coverage offered in the Affordable Care Act because they consider certain types of birth control to be abortificients. This is in the face of the medical community’s clear determination that this is not the case. But when your mind is already made up, facts seem not to matter.
Add to that the Hobby Lobby case’s assertion that the freedom to practice one’s religion without interference by the government extends beyond individuals to corporations. Such an assertion trivializes religion itself. Corporations don’t gather in religious community, don’t worship anything (except perhaps the bottom line), don’t pray, and they don’t possess a soul in need of redemption.
Religion already reaps enormous benefits from American society and government. Because they are charitable organizations, ostensibly devoted to beneficial care of the poor and needy, they are already exempt from helping fund (through taxes) the very government that supports them. As long as they abide by their own internal rules of governance, the secular society imposes no meddling restrictions. hey can discriminate all they like on the selection of their clergy, lay leaders and membership. Until relatively recently, Mormons excluded African-Americans from the priesthood. Roman Catholics, Mormons, and many evangelical churches continue to exclude women from the highest levels of participation and leadership. Instead of being grateful for such accommodations and freedoms—unusual even in most Western, democratic countries—some religions want more.
Religious freedom and liberty is a precious right, guaranteed by our Constitution. But shouldn’t such freedom to practice one’s religion stop where another person’s freedom and liberty start? Under the Affordable Care Act, which is the law of the land whether or not one likes it, access to contraceptive care is a right extended to those covered by health insurance plans. Should the Hobby Lobby owners’ personal religion—and their denial of the scientific, factual evidence to the contrary—be allowed to trump the rights of their employees and their families to exercise their right of access to contraceptive care? Surely not.
No one is threatening the Greens’ right not to use certain forms of birth control, nor is anyone being forced to have an abortion. But the owners of a corporation should not be allowed to decide for their employees what is moral or immoral in their decision-making. The religious freedom promised in the Constitution was never meant to extend to big businesses (or small ones, for that matter). Asserting that such corporations are “practicing” religion is patently absurd. And if the Greens didn’t want to follow the laws applying to the public, then they should never have opened a corporation whose business is based on serving the public.
The slippery slope here is long and steep. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby, the ramifications are enormous. Religion, after all, does not merely include mainstream Methodists, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, but countless small and outlandish “religions” on the fringes of society. Some of these “religions” have beliefs and practices that border on the bizarre and disturbing. If Hobby Lobby is accorded these exemptions, there will be no end to the attempts to “protect” these more radical beliefs and practices, all in the name of religious freedom.
Most disturbing of all to those of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is the threat of our hard-won civil rights being abridged and denied, all in the name of religious belief. Don’t get me wrong; while I don’t agree with religious condemnation of homosexuality, I would die in the ditch for protecting churches, synagogues, mosques and other truly religious entities from having to ordain or marry LGBT people, based on their religion. But how long will it take for religiously-sponsored homeless shelters to reject homosexual clients? Will doctors be free, based on their personal religious beliefs, to deny medical services to gay patients? Will hospitals run or owned by religious institutions be free to deny health services to those who are LGBT—or for that matter, to cohabiting-but-unmarried heterosexuals?
Religion—unfortunately often defined in America by the religious right—doesn’t need to tarnish its reputation further by such a public desire to discriminate. Many have left the religion of their childhoods because of such narrow and limiting attitudes. As far as I know, no religion places an asterisk after its recitation of the Golden Rule, indicating those who can (and should) be exempted from the command to love and treat others as they would themselves want to be treated. The Supreme Court shouldn’t help the ones who are trying.
The Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the recently retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson