Rights or Restrictions? the New Debate over the Meaning of Religious Freedom

Article excerpt

In March the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in two important cases that could establish new parameters for what religious liberty means.

The two cases, which the high court has consolidated into one, concern access to birth control. In itself that's a highly compelling issue. But just below the surface lurks a host of questions that will define what type of nation we're going to be: one where rights are extended to all and everyone must play by the same rules or one where religious people, by mere dint of their faith, receive special treatment and a free pass from complying with certain laws and regulations.

The legal cases were brought by two for-profit companies--Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Corporation--that don't want to comply with the federal regulations that require most secular employers to include no-cost birth control coverage in employee healthcare plans.

Both firms are owned by conservative Protestants who say they're offended by certain types of birth control, which they insist is really abortion in disguise.

They're wrong about that scientifically and medically, but the court won't likely look at that issue. Instead, the core question before the justices is this: Does religious belief exempt a person from following an otherwise generally applicable law?

These cases were sparked by the Obama administration's attempt to apply the "contraceptive mandate" of the Affordable Care Act. The administration argues, with ample justification, that the use of birth control is so common in the United States that it makes no sense to erect barriers to its access. Under the mandate, no one is forced to use birth control, of course. Secular employers must merely tolerate its presence in the healthcare plans their employees receive. The decision of whether to use it rests entirely with the employee.

Religious entities (houses of worship, ministries, and so forth) are wholly exempt from the mandate; they do not have to comply at all. Religiously-affiliated groups (church-run hospitals, colleges, and so on) are not required to provide birth control directly, although they must allow it to be given to those employees who want it through a third-party provider.

Even the latter accommodation is being fought, and many observers believe that question too will end up before the Supreme Court.

But right now, the issue facing the justices concerns for-profit, secular entities. Remember, the firms objecting to the mandate have nothing to do with religion. Some are factories and manufacturing companies. Hobby Lobby is a nationwide chain of craft stores. Conestoga Wood manufactures materials used in home building and renovation.

In each case, these corporations happen to be owned by people whose religion forbids the use of certain forms of birth control. Those owners object, and they would like to subject all of their employees to the dictates of their faith.

That's bad enough. But when we go a little deeper, we quickly see that these cases could establish a much broader--and more dangerous--precedent.

Across the country, religious fundamentalists are demanding the right to ignore virtually any laws they dislike. For example, they want the right to actively discriminate against LGBTQ Americans.

U.S. law has long required secular businesses to refrain from rank forms of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and gender. …