A Hearing for Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

The Supreme Court has just indicated that it will take up Hobby Lobby’s challenge to Obamacare’s abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate. 

In this case, the Justice Department has insisted that the Green family that runs the arts and crafts chain — that is closed on Sundays, closes early so staff can get home to family — give up their religious-liberty rights when they enter the business world. (Read one of a number of interviews with Becket Fund lawyer Kyle Duncan affiliated with the case here.)

The Green family, which also runs a chain of Christian bookstores, understands that religious belief is not a Sabbath-only deal. And they are fighting for your right to let God influence your life beyond an hour or Sunday or whenever your worship time may be. (Listen to their explanation here.)

“This legal challenge has always remained about one thing and one thing only: the right of our family businesses to live out our sincere and deeply held religious convictions as guaranteed by the law and the Constitution. Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law, Hobby Lobby CEO David Green commented in a statement in response to the Court news. 

The government position is insulting and dangerous. The objection to the narrowing of religious liberty was well-expressed by Pope Francis in his 40,000-plus exhortation this morning: “Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta?”

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has taken up an Obama administration assault on religious liberty. It did not go well for the administration last time. This challenge is about more than abortion-inducing drugs or contraceptive mandates, it’s about a secularized view of religious liberty that narrows it. As Duncan has pointed out

 The administration’s arguments in this case are shocking. Here’s what they are saying: once someone starts a “secular” business, he categorically loses any right to run that business in accordance with his conscience. The business owner simply leaves her First Amendment rights at home when she goes to work at the business she built. Kosher butchers around the country must be shocked to find that they now run “secular” businesses. On this view of the world, even a seller of Bibles is “secular.” Hobby Lobby’s affiliate, Mardel, sells Bibles and other Christian-themed material, but because it makes a profit the government has now declared it “secular.”

The administration’s position here — while astonishing — is actually consistent with its overall view of the place of religion in civil society. After all, this is the administration who argued in the Hosanna-Tabor case last year in the Supreme Court that the religion clauses of the First Amendment offered no special protection to a church’s right to choose its ministers — a position that the Court rejected 9-0. This is the administration which has taken to referring to “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion” — suggesting that religious freedom consists in being free to engage in private rituals and prayers, but not in carrying your religious convictions into public life. And this is the administration who crafted a “religious employer” exemption to the HHS mandate so narrow that a Catholic charity does not qualify for conscience protection if it serves non-Catholic poor people.

As you point out, the administration is trying to justify its rigid stance against religious business owners by saying otherwise they would become a “law unto themselves,” and be able to do all sorts of nasty things to their employees — like force them to attend Bible studies, or fire them if they denied the divinity of Christ. Nonsense. Hobby Lobby isn’t arguing for the right to impose the Greens’ religion on employees, nor for the right to fire employees of different religions. There’s already a federal law that protects employees from religious discrimination and that’s a very good thing. This case is about something entirely different:  it’s about stopping the government from coercing religious business owners. The government wants to fine the Greens if they do not violate their own faith by handing out free abortion drugs, and now it’s saying they don’t even have the right to complain in court about it. 

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