Hobby Lobby and the Real Meaning of Religious Liberty

You have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don't have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

As these protesters recognize, you have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don’t have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

Ah, yes, America: it’s a country with no official state religion in which people of all backgrounds can practice their respective faiths without the government deciding which faith is “true” via legislative action. Well, at least that’s the kind of country the United States is supposed to be, but thanks to the right-wing Catholic dude-bro contingent of the United States Supreme Court, “religious freedom” apparently now constitutes the right to make other people (especially women) accept as fact your own particular religious dogma via laws that sanctify (in more ways than one) those beliefs.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that allows closely held (ie., non publicly traded) corporations to be except from the Obamacare mandate that employers provide contraceptives as part of their female employees’ heath plans. In keeping with a millenia-old tradition in which “religion” has too often been a code word for men controlling how the wimmin-folk use their lady-parts, the court’s conservative, male, Catholic justices made up the majority decision, with Justice Samuel “The Catholic Crusher” Alito opining that closely held corporations have the right to deny women contraceptive coverage simply because said corporations believe that contraception is the same damn thing as abortion, which it ain’t.

As I discussed at length in an earlier post, the case was instigated primarily by David Green and his family, the fundamentalist Christian owners of the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby. The Greens believe that certain types of birth control, specifically Plan B, Ella, and a pair of intrauterine devices are, in fact, “abortifacients;” i.e, they cause abortions. This belief, however, is completely, utterly, false. It’s wrong. It’s not right. It’s scientifically falsifiable. As Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden note, “Alito and the four other conservative justices on the court were essentially overruling not just an Obamacare regulation, but science. According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to…do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization.”

Hobby Lobby’s position makes a weird kind of sense when you consider that the hallmark of religious fundamentalism is its obsessive rejection of secular-scientific advancements that contradict “traditional” faith beliefs regardless of the empirically verifiable validity of those beliefs. But that said, let’s be clear: the Hobby Lobby folks are free to believe whatever they want, truth and reality be damned (or not damned, if you subscribe to their point of view), but they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on other people. This is what we mean by the phrase “religious liberty” in America, and it’s why the Supreme Court’s decision is dunder-headed and just plain wrong.

The idea of “religious liberty” is a concept that was debated during the earliest days of the Constitutional era following the American Revolution, and it’s a concept we still struggle with today. In his book Religion in American Politics: A Short History, historian Frank Lambert identifies the core point of division between religious and secular forces in America. “[R]eligious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion,” he writes.* But those wishing to make U.S. laws abide by particular religious codes have run into the problematic reality of secular forces and other religious groups that also want, and deserve, a voice in the public sphere. As Lambert writes, “the result is sometimes a clash between the country’s secular laws, which reflect the tenets of liberal capitalism and the free exchange of goods, and the ‘higher laws’ that religious groups cite to condemn certain goods and services offered in the marketplace.”*

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn't vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn’t vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

Science is one of those secular forces that challenges religion in the public sphere, and it has the weight of empirical evidence behind it that sometimes runs afoul of religious groups’ by-definition evidence-free ‘higher laws.’ Because religion often relies of these ‘higher laws,’ some types of religious folks — especially Christian fundamentalists — are thoroughly convinced that their laws should be EVERYONE’S laws, because who would dare argue with the TRUTH?! It’s these sanctimonious scallywags — not religious people in general — that the Constitution wisely prohibits from establishing a theocratic government in America. And it’s this prohibition that fundamentalists like the Hobby Lobby goons want to challenge.

No figure in American history recognized the threat posed by overly self-righteous believers better than the most Founding Father-est of all the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Ole’ T-Jeff eloquently detailed the problem posed by unshaken religious dogmatism in his 1786 Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, a key document that he drafted in response to religious coercion by the Anglican Church. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church of England was the state church of the Virginia colony, and as such, all Virginians were legally compelled to attend church services and support its operations through taxation.

The Anglican Church’s domination of state laws pissed off renegade sects of Baptists and Presbyterians, and, in an effort to liberalize Virginia’s religious liberty laws in accordance with an independent, republican state — and to gain non-Anglican groups’ support for the Patriots during the fight against Britain — Jefferson, with much input from fellow Founding Father James Madison, drafted the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute in 1777. The Virginia General Assembly then adopted the statute in 1786. That’s right: Jefferson drafted his statute in support of religious pluralism in part to protect the rights of minority religions against the heavy-handedness of a state religion. He recognized that nothing dampens religious liberty more than Theocracy.

Among the key arguments in Jefferson’s statute is the timeless observance that some über-pious pilgrims just can’t help but force their particular beliefs onto others, and that American law must guard against this tendency. Jefferson warned against “all attempts” to influence the free human mind through “temporal punishments or burthens” imposed by “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical.” He recognized that religious people, like ALL people, were “themselves but fallible and uninspired.” When these theocrats “have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,” Jefferson wrote, they had only “established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Jefferson realized that forcing others to abide by YOUR particular brand of religious dogma is, you know, kind of tyrannical. Establishing any kind of state religion was “a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,” he wrote, because the person wishing to force his beliefs on others “will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” This is precisely what Hobby Lobby is doing by effectively trying to turn a purely religious belief into a state law.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn't perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn’t perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Justice Alito’s argument highlights this absurdity while at the same time sanctioning it into law when he writes that, “the owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” As Wonkette’s Kaili Joy Gray writes, “does it matter whether their ‘religious beliefs’ are in any way, like, scientifically accurate? Nope, writes Alito, because ‘it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.'” She thus reaches the disturbing conclusion that Hobby Lobby has “a First Amendment right to believe whatever they want…and that First Amendment right is far more important than, say, a woman and her doctor to choose the best method of contraception for her.”

And there’s the religious rub. By demanding that the highest court in the land recognize, through law, the utterly non-factual belief that “abortifacients” cause an abortion, Hobby Lobby is forcing its employees to tacitly accept the “validity” of their religious beliefs. This denies Hobby Lobby employees, as well as other workers now placed at the whims of their potentially wingnut boss’s non-factual religious notions, the right to be free from religiously based coercion. This is the kind of coercion Jefferson warned was a direct threat to actual religious liberty.

But perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on the whole “religious liberty” angle and taking Hobby Lobby a bit too much at their own word. Why, you ask? Because this whole Supreme Court brouhaha may have nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do about promoting a patriarchal culture that keeps men in control over women’s most personal rights. As Mother Jones details, Hobby Lobby has for years included contraception in employer retirement plans and has invested in them via manufacturers of all kinds of birth control. Perhaps those who are the most vocally self-righteous are always Pharisees in disguise. Jefferson would probably agree, dammit.

And as far as the Supreme Court goes: the five-justice majority that decided the Hobby Lobby decision are Catholic, male, and conservative. Is it wrong for me to suggest that subscribing to a religion that opposes contraception may have influenced these justices’ votes? You be the judge of that.

* See Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 5,7.

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2 Comments

  1. Green’s lawsuit had nothing to do with religion. He claims that his beliefs are based on “Biblical” teachings, yet no scritpure in the Bible mentions birth control or abortion. Catholics (like the majority of the Supreme Court) base their beliefs on made-up Church doctrine, but even that decree has no scriptural basis. The Hebrew men who wrote the ancient books contained in the present-day Bible believed that ensoulment of humans began at quickening, or when the baby could be detected by its movement and heartbeat in the womb. Funny how the Catholic supreme court justices see their ruling as being limited only for employers who share their own religious beliefs and cannot possibly apply to the beliefs of employers who are Jehovah’s witnesses, Chrisian Scientists, or Muslims. Their majority opinion even blatantly admits this, and the dissenting opinion by Ginsberg called it a minefield. The government isn’t in the business of favoring or validating religious beliefs. So, we basically have a Judiciary branch which interprets law based on Papal doctrines rather than the Constitution.

    • Well, yes, religious folks have been making up the rules as they go along for centuries. As far as the SCOTUS right-wing Catholics voting a little to closely in accordance to their own religious beliefs: I’d have to agree with you on that.

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