Why Am I Not So Alarmed By Hobby Lobby?

Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Hobby Lobby In ACA Contraception Case

The obvious damning answer is that I am a man and no one has taken anything away from me – indeed the all-male majority who upheld Hobby Lobby’s religious rights specifically barred any procedure other than female contraception. If they did that for prescriptions for Truvada, for example, I might react differently. And I take that point. But its flipside is that this was a very narrow ruling, and the limiting of it to closely-held corporations, in which a small group of people with identical religious convictions can dictate the details of health insurance coverage they pay for, is not the great exemption for religious beliefs that some were fearing. It does not apply to publicly traded companies, for example. Here’s the reassuring language from Alito:

This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.

Of course, employment discrimination against gay people is legal discrimination in many states, so this may not seem much comfort. But I suspect that if closely-held religious companies start firing people explicitly because they are gay and therefore not kosher, the prospects for both a federal employment non-discrimination law and a heightened scrutiny ruling for gays improve considerably. And the recourse in this case is a pretty simple one: just extend the existing third party arrangements for religious institutions to closely held, religiously based companies. The main worry – Ginsburg’s – that this could create a dangerous and expansive precedent seems a little overblown to me. If anything, the real precedent is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that remains at the Congress’s discretion, not the Court’s.

But none of this is to say I find this development a positive one for religion.

A Christianity that seeks to rid itself of interacting with sinners or infidels is not a Christianity I recognize. A Christianity that can ascribe the core religious nature of a human being to a corporation is theologically perverse. Corporations have no souls. They do not have a relationship with God, as Jonathan Merritt points out here. And a Christianity that seeks to jealously guard its own defenses rather than embrace the world joyfully and indiscriminately is not one that appeals to me.

But in some ways, this can be seen as a libertarian ruling. It reframes the argument of the religious right toward the libertarian one of self-defense, rather than of the imposition of religious standards on others. And as long as women can have easy access to free or subsidized contraception through Obamacare by another method, it can rest sturdily on that foundation.

The worry, it seems to me, is that it further restricts the area of neutral public life. It turns the world of business into something much more like a world of theology. It chips away at the notion of a naked public marketplace, where we can leave our faiths behind and simply buy and sell goods and not worry about anyone else’s religion or lack of it. And that’s a loss. But if it is restrained adequately and imposed narrowly, not that great a one. And if we can lean on the side of religious freedom – even of the defensive and narrow variety – without restricting the actual access to some forms of contraception, why shouldn’t we?

(Photo: Sister Caroline (L) attends a rally in Chicago with other supporters of religious freedom to praise the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case on June 30, 2014. Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, which operates a chain of arts-and-craft stores, challenged the provision and the high court ruled 5-4 that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. By Scott Olson/Getty Images)