Religious War and Peace

Ah, the holiday season. This month, we commence our annual orgy of consumerism to the lilting tunes of pundits debating the War on Christmas, the War on Christians and (depending upon the belligerency, politics and general cluelessness of the combatant) Obama’s War on Religion.

Because requiring businesses that offer health insurance to cover contraceptives along with Viagra is clearly an assault on Christianity.

This year, the Supreme Court will once again engage partisans over the proper place of religion in American society. The Court has accepted cases challenging the contraceptive mandate on the theory that requiring that contraceptive coverage be made available as part of comprehensive health insurance constitutes a “substantial burden” on the religious liberty of corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

Veteran Court watcher Linda Greenhouse speculates that the anger about this regulation stems from the perception that “the government is putting its thumb on the scale in favor of birth control, or sex without consequences.”  Disconnecting sex from those consequences–pregnancy, STDs, whatever– is evidently more important than the significant health benefits of making contraception more widely available. It’s even more important than the documented and significant decline in abortions among poor women when access to birth control is provided.

Whatever the psychological impetus for the assault on this provision of the Affordable Care Act, the legal question–and the most important policy question for a free and diverse society–is whether and when employers must respect the fundamental rights and moral autonomy of their employees. As Greenhouse puts it:

There’s a powerful argument to be made, both in policy and law, that an employer of any faith or no faith who chooses to enter the secular marketplace can’t pick and choose which rules to follow. As some of the federal judges who have rejected the religious claims in these cases have pointed out, no employer would have the right to tell employees that they can’t use their wages to obtain contraceptives, abortions or any other legal product or service. By paying employees as the law requires, neither a corporation nor its owner is endorsing the employees’ choice of what to spend their money on.

What makes providing contraceptive coverage a “substantial burden” on an employer’s religion? It’s not financial–insurance companies have agreed not to charge anything extra for its inclusion. Is it simply the knowledge that some employees will use it?

Would the “substantial burden” logic apply to all sincerely-held religious beliefs? If an employer is a Jehovah’s Witness, for example, should he be able to exclude coverage for blood transfusions?  What if she is a Christian Scientist–can she limit insurance coverage to prayer? Can a company owned by Scientologists exclude coverage for mental health services?

In a free society, religious privilege can only go so far. Religious organizations are permitted wide latitude to operate in accordance with their doctrine. Public and commercial enterprises, however, are subject to neutral laws of general application. Police officers who disapprove of abortion must nonetheless protect clinics from would-be bombers. Racist shop owners cannot refuse to serve black customers. Whatever their owners’ beliefs, commercial enterprises can’t hire and fire on the basis of race, gender and religion.

In America, people who choose to engage in commerce do not thereby control fiefdoms populated by peasants whose material and spiritual lives are theirs to direct.  

Hobby Lobby is not being victimized by laws that prevent its owners from privileging their own religious beliefs at the expense of their employees. The only religious war is the one these “Christians” are waging.

Happy Holidays.


  1. To what extent does the ACA require health care providers offer regarding all women’s health care issues, including birth control? Which businesses are required under the ACA to provide health care options for all employees? It seems to me that simply following the law – and ACA is now the law whether they like it or not – does not allow employers to limit the options offered by health care providers. Neither does it force employees to avail themselves of every option offered through their health care provider…as an example, my Medicare covers erectile dysfunction supplies which I would never need. This is not a silly comparison – it points out the ridiculous level of this entire argument and the endless limits of intrusion into personal lives by companies and much of this current administration. Employers cannot require employees to follow their personal religious beliefs; which is the basis for their balking at providing full health care benefits. Neither can they tell employees where to live, what vehicles to drive, what foods to eat or – WHO WE CAN HAVE SEX WITH – but they sure as hell are trying. These appear to me to be frivolous law suits which need to be weeded out of the court system and clear court calendars for actual legal issues.

  2. I am no lawyer so please correct my thinking if necessary. Going along with what JoAnn posted above: when you are hired you get a salary and benefits. Like Greenhouse says, employers cannot tell you how you spend your salary. While they are paying for the health benefit, aren’t they doing it on the employees behalf because a group gets better deals than an individual? If employees could get better deals on the open market, wouldn’t they take them and decline an employer’s offering? In most cases, the employee is paying for part of the premium. Couldn’t the SCOTUS say that the “parts” of the health benefit that the employer doesn’t like is paid for by employee through their portion? It’s a ridiculous argument, but that is what it has come to: having ridiculous arguments.

  3. Hobby Lobby is the biggest hypocrite in the world of business. They sell products made in communist China where the one child rule is just now being softened and they want to keep birth control out of their employees’ hands? And what religion is the mainstay in China? Oh yeah, they are mostly atheists. Maybe they should consider that China forces abortion on families so that they can control the population!!!

    I simply added them to my boycotted stores which now includes Walmart and Chik-filet.

  4. Shiela, great article! The point is that the Republican Party lives in Pretendo World and bases none of their wacked out theories on anything approaching reality or a pragmatic approach to problem solving. For instance , there are a myriad of reasons a person may need to take birth control pills other than preventing pregnancy. My feeling is that even a right wing court would not support this argument, but the fact that they even took the case gives me some reason for concern.

  5. Philip Gift has a very good point. If this case is such an obvious no-brainer, what do they see in it that needs so much of their attention? We seem to be living in a time in which people talk nonsense, expect people to believe it, and, incredibly, they do. If we were living in a time where people were rational, and everyone knew that these folks were living on another planet, people would ignore them and let them wear their aluminum foil hats, but we don’t seem to be living in that kind of time. When crazy fearful thinking is accepted, sane people have reason to be afraid.

  6. So your argument is that government should always be allowed to mandate that people and businesses follow policies regardless of their religious beliefs? If not, where would you limit that…where’s the line that requires government to accommodate religious beliefs? So do you think people’s religious freedom only applies to when they’re going to the physical confines of their church?

    It is interesting that those who are so quick to rightly decry discrimination, can’t see anything wrong with discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs.

    I don’t buy that the type of entity matters. Many, if not most, business entities are organized as LLCs now. All the talk is about corporations. What about LLCs? How would the corporation theory apply to them?

    As far as Hobby Lobby being hypocrites because of doing business with China, well that’s one heck of a reach. I see that Sheila wasn’t even willing to make that argument.

  7. Paul; this blog is NOT about discriminating against people’s religious beliefs when they do not want to follow laws, rules, regulations or ordinances due to their religious beliefs. Those who don’t want to follow mandates regarding health care decisions, health care coverage, birth control in it’s many forms, who can marry who, etc., for THEIR religious beliefs are discriminating against those of us who have different religious beliefs or those who have none by trying to prevent our access to medical care and/or basic civil rights. Their only reason is their religion and they are forcing it on others and denying us rights they choose not to use. The 1st Amendment states, “Congress shalt make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thieir actions falls under “prohibiting free exercise thereof” No one is forcing them to use areas of coverage that goes against their religion or medical coverage they do not need. If you are against birth control, then avoid it and procreate all you wish or abstain totally if that is your choice – leave the rest of us to make our own decisions.

  8. It’s not just healthcare. Can a Business owned by a fundamentalist Mormon discriminate against blacks in hiring or firing? What about a Catholic owned business and it’s relationship with divorced people or a woman who got an abortion? Can Hewish business refuse to serve customers who believe that Jesus was the messiah or refuse to employ people with tattoos or who eat shrimp, pork, or cheeseburgers? Does a pacifist religious-owned business get to violate laws about whether an employee can bring a gun onto the business property? Can a Jewish business sell cars on Sunday because they close on Saturday? Can a Native American business ignore no smoking laws? Can Amish businesses refuse to pay taxes?

    Also, remember that corporations & limited liability companies exist, in part, to isolate shareholders from risk & liability. If their religious views “flow downward” then perhaps responsibility for wrongdoing should flow upward too.

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