Hobby Lobby, Healthcare, and Liberty

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Healthcare, and Liberty

The cost of employee health insurance got the attention of the new president of a small Christian organization. Their insurance agent told him, “It’s the Cadillac. It covers everything.” 

And it certainly did. The policy (that no one seemed to have read) covered abortions, all birth control methods including those that abort already conceived children, sterilization, and sex-change operations. That is, his Christian organization was paying high premiums covering products and services the leadership, board, and staff deemed immoral.

So the organization did what any organization, company, association, family, or individual would do: they changed their insurance policy to fit their needs, budget, and moral convictions.

Today, in the days of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”), they’d need to lawyer up and fight their way to the Supreme Court to do that.

Let me be clear, Obamacare does NOT mandate that sex-change operation be in employee health insurance, but the Obama administration did mandate that all employee health insurance must include a long list of contraceptives, plus abortion causing drugs and sterilization free of charge (no deductible or co-pay). The employer through premiums pays the whole cost.

The religious exception to this “HHS Mandate” was drawn so narrowly that religious nonprofits and for-profit corporations run according to religious principles were given no relief. 

So a wide assortment of organizations, colleges, religious orders, and for-profit corporations have gone to court in order to make the kinds of decisions they were making a few years ago without any government notice let alone interference.

On June 30, the U. S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the first of the HHS Mandate cases. Hobby Lobby stores and Conestoga Wood Products claimed that being forced to pay for abortion inducing drugs and devices—“morning after” pills and intrauterine devices (UIDs) for example—violated their moral convictions and religious freedom.

In a victory for religious freedom, the Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, agreed. 

The Obama administration’s case in part argued that while individuals have religious liberty, corporations

do not. But this ignores the fact that particularly with closely held companies—Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Products are family owned companies—the corporation is nothing but an extension of its owners. Justice Alito in the majority decision wrote, “Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.”

That the Obama Administration doesn’t see or acknowledge this is not a surprise. President Obama beginning during his 2004 campaign uses the phrase “freedom of worship” where one would hope he would use “religious freedom.” The two are vastly different.

Freedom of worship, as George Weigel put it, is what’s left when religious freedom “has been demoted to a ‘privacy’ right to certain weekend leisure activities.” 

Freedom of worship allows believers to believe whatever they wish and practice it (within limits) inside their homes, places of worship, and faith communities. It does not allow them to bring their religious convictions into their businesses, their schools, their professional association, their politics, or even their friendships lest someone feel “proselytized” and thus take offense (or, even worse, convert). 

More than that, freedom of worship is a gift of the government and what the government gives, the government is more than able (and sometimes more than willing) to take away.

In marked contrast, religious freedom, first and foremost, is part of those “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” we celebrate every Fourth of July. It is prior to all government and is ours because we are human. Religious freedom is the right not only to hold, but to live all of life according to our deepest convictions. 

Freedom of worship is easy. The government speaks and we obey.

Religious liberty is messy, as a brief survey of the history of religious liberty in the United States makes clear. We have never had and never will have a golden age of religious liberty. There have always been and will always be battles in the Public Square and in the courts.

While the HHS Mandate represents a new level of government overreach into the religious lives of Americans, the beauty is that we have recourse. And while not all decisions go our way, the Hobby Lobby decision is a step in the right direction.

On the Fourth of July we celebrate our form of government and the good it has done. Re-dedicating ourselves to defend it—beginning with the defense of religious liberty—is as American as a picnic with fireworks.

Publication date: July 3, 2014