Problems with Hobby Lobby’s Crafty Religious Liberty Arguments

March 24, 2014

Supreme Court's fake front during construction last summer
The nine justices of the Supreme Court will gather tomorrow to hear oral arguments in what could result in a landmark religious liberty ruling. Already people are camping out to attend the oral arguments, and the voluminous media coverage will only grow tomorrow. Unless the justices offer a ruling with a narrow scope or based on a technicality, it could be the most important religious liberty cases in years. The arguments will cover two cases that have been linked together, both of which feature owners of a for-profit business claiming that the contraception mandate of Obamacare infringes on their religious beliefs. Yet, the two companies - Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood - offer arguments that are quite problematic and ultimately turn religious liberty upside down (Hobby Lobby has received the most attention thanks to their size and their outspoken founding family). Their arguments remain problematic for several reasons as they craft an artificial picture of our country's historic notion of religious liberty.

First, it is important to recognize that the Supreme Court case is not really about contraception. If the two companies are granted the right to invoke their religious beliefs to deny contraception coverage in their employee health plans, then it could allow others to make similar religious-based arguments. If Hobby Lobby can invoke religion to prevent employee health coverage from including contraception, then perhaps a Jehovah's Witness business owner would want to prevent employee health coverage from covering blood transfusions and organ donations. Or, perhaps a Christian Science business owner would want to prevent employee insurance from covering psychiatric drugs. Or, perhaps a white supremacist would want to invoke religious arguments to discriminate against minorities. Supreme Court cases set precedence for lower courts, so this case must be seen as not merely about the beliefs of the Hobby Lobby family.

Second, if the Supreme Court grants sides with the business owners, it would allow the owners of the for-profit companies to force their religious beliefs on their employees. However, true religious liberty is for everyone, not just the 1 percent! While supporters of the companies have argued that the government is forgetting that religious liberty rights apply to business owners, their rhetoric ignores employees. The business owners are asking the Supreme Court to allow them to establish their religious faith on their employees, rather than allowing individuals to follow their own conscience regarding contraception. The dual nature of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nicely captures the tension here: we cannot just promote one's free exercise as we also have to avoid establishment - and vice versa. While religious organizations can rightly expect employees to follow their religious beliefs (and are therefore exempted from the contraception mandate), employees at secular, for-profit companies should not expect such treatment. We must consider the religious freedoms of all, not just business owners. Just as religious liberty rights should not be left to a democratic vote (where only the majority gets to practice their faith), this essential first freedom must not be subjected to a corporate hierarchy (where only the powerful get to practice their faith).

Third, the idea that a secular, for-profit corporation can hold religious beliefs is highly problematic. While I disagree with the notion put forth by former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and others that corporations are people, I hope we can at least agree that corporations do not have souls. I find it troubling that many evangelical leaders are promoting Hobby Lobby as able to exercise religion since this distracts us from the evangelical teaching that individuals - and not business or nations - must make decisions to become Christians. Can a company be a Christian? The owners of Hobby Lobby might not want to go down that road since Jesus's teachings are much clearer on issues of finances than contraception. It would probably be better for their bottom line to just be a for-profit business and not a Christian entity! If businesses are religious, how does that work? What if the owner sells the company, does it suddenly convert - and how do we perform that baptism? What if a Mormon knocks on the door of Walmart's CEO and converts him? Does he have the right to declare his company a Mormon company and enact his new theological beliefs on his employees? This model seems to harken back to the old model of state religions where the whole country "converted" whenever the prince did.

Fourth, legally a business is a separate entity from its founders and owners, which therefore negates the claims of the business owners in these cases. In multiple interviews, the owners of Hobby Lobby talk about their personal religious beliefs and how they should not be forced to do something they do not believe in. However, they miss the fact that Hobby Lobby is an incorporated entity and therefore legally separated from the individuals. If Hobby Lobby provided a health plan with contraception, it would be the legally-separate corporate entity that did so and not the individual owners. This legal separation protects the owners from lawsuits and other potential problems as they are not held personally responsible for the actions of the corporations. Thus, it does not infringe on the religious liberty of individuals to mandate a corporation to provide contraception in an employee health plan. In fact, this might be an area where the justices go for a narrow ruling by deciding that individuals suing do not have a claim since it is the corporations - and the individuals - who are under the mandate.

Hopefully a majority of Supreme Court justices will decide to reject the claims by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. The religious liberty claims of the business owners should be rejected not because religious liberty is not important but precisely because it is. And religious liberty is critically important because of the value of the sacred. It should not be reduced to a CEO perk or a part of a boardroom deal. Political leaders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and Baptist leaders like John Leland and Isaac Backus struggled to establish religious liberty for all, which was a truly revolutionary idea in the age of the American Revolution. Unfortunately, some Christians today attempt to use the language of religious liberty to codify their faith. In doing so, they turn the concept on its head by essentially arguing that unless they are allowed to establish their religion then their free exercise rights are being infringed. Religious liberty for all must be preserved.

5 comments