Friday, January 4, 2013

Hobby Lobby misunderstands religious freedom

There was a lot going around over the holidays regarding Hobby Lobby, and their fight to prevent their employees from accessing contraception coverage through their insurance plan. I, however, was too burned out between work and making 10,324 cookies for my holiday party to address it. But, with many thanks to a few days of vacation after the new year, I'm up to the task.

So, in case you hadn't heard, please be aware that the world is officially ending, religious freedom as we know it is gone, and we are now living under an oppressive, religion hating government; or something like that.

Ok, you're probably asking, “what the heck are you talking about?” Fair enough. A Federal Court ruled that Hobby Lobby was not exempt from providing contraception coverage to their employees, and HL's request for an emergency injunction against the ruling while the case went to the Supreme Court was denied. Subsequently, Hobby Lobby declared that they would still defy the order, despite being subject to fines that may total as much as $1.3 million a day. This may seem like something rather mundane, an employer fighting a rule that they don't like (whatever you think of the strength of their case, this is hardly earth shattering news); but you are very much mistaken. It was, you see, “the most egregious violation of religious liberty” imaginable, and merely the first step down the slippery slope that will, eventually, end with “the federal government requir[ing] you to purchase goods or services that you believe to be immoral and against your most deeply held beliefs”. It is a case of “A Company that Obeys God Rather than Men”. It is a matter of respecting “religious belief”. It's an issue because "[t]he Obama administration insists that companies like Hobby Lobby bow their knees to the God of government health care mandates, even when those mandates are a clear and direct contradiction to their personal beliefs of faith". And, if some of the more hyperbolic stuff that floated past my social media feeds was to be believed, the government had officially declared war on religion; Christianity is on trial; Christians are on trial; etc. This is a war with God, Hobby Lobby, and the legions of Glitter Glue on one side, and Obama, Satan, and the SS on the other. (As I say, I have some very conservative friends and family on my friends list...).

But for all the hyperbole, all the frustration and all the anger that a company like Hobby Lobby, a secular, for-profit business, should not be exempted from providing the same, basic coverage that other secular, for-profit businesses must provide, the case just is not the harbinger of religious tyranny that HL's proponents assert (if employers losing the right to dictate government mandated employee benefits is anti-religious tyranny, that ship sailed a long time ago; and religion seems to be doing pretty well despite the fact...). I would go further, though, in saying that Hobby Lobby is just wrong on this.

And wrong in more than one way. HL filed for exemption based on the owner's belief that certain types of contraception are “abortion-inducing drugs”. Now we hold belief as nearly sacred in this country, and a thing that cannot be trifled with by government in most cases; but when belief directly contradicts reality, as it does when people believe that Plan B causes abortions – not in an abstract, theoretical way, but in a solid, provable way – surely we must preference reality. This is of particular urgency when it directly affects other people's rights (as in this case), in addition to the collective sanity of our nation. I could believe with every fiber of my being that I am a Cylon agent sent to earth on a diplomatic mission, but nobody else has to take me seriously. They don't have to give special consideration to my delusions because I believe them, nor should they think that those beliefs justify any attempts on my part to infringe on other people's rights. It is my right to believe anything I wish, no matter how outlandish and contrary to reality, but it is not the responsibility of the government to feed or respect my delusions when they spill into other people's lives. In the case in point, the medical community has come to a consensus about what constitutes a set of standard care, and the government has mandated that full time employees are due coverage for that care as a benefit of employment. The fact that someone holds a medically inaccurate belief should have no bearing on what care their employees receive.

But this touches the core issue: religious freedom is the freedom to conduct our personal lives as we see fit, but is not the right to force our beliefs on others. An employer can choose to do whatever they like in their own lives, but he does not have the right to impose his beliefs, abstract, plausible, or simply absurd, on his employees unless that belief is a reasonable condition of employment. While a Catholic church can reasonably expect its employees to abide by its religion, a religious employer running a secular business cannot. As a result, a secular business cannot deny an employee mandated benefits because they are contrary to the employer's personal beliefs.

As decided in United States v. Lee (where an employer argued that his personal beliefs in opposition to the social security tax were sufficient to exempt him from paying owed taxes on behalf of his employees):

When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes that are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees.

As with that case, an exemption from providing coverage for certain types of medical care effectively imposes the employer's beliefs on the employee. It would also set a precedent that an employer's beliefs about what constitutes medical care outweigh the employee's right to that benefit, which would effectively render the law useless in some cases. There are the obvious instances, of course (anyone want an insurance policy that covers “prayer” from a Christian Scientist employer who believes anything else is immoral?), but the implications are wider reaching. Suppose an employer deeply believes that providing pregnancy related coverage to an unmarried woman is immoral? Suppose an employer deeply believes that providing healthcare for the child of a gay employee is immoral? If an employer can legally assert his beliefs in the one instance, who is to stop him in another? This is not over-the-top musing; consider that the failed Blunt Amendment attempted to codify exactly such nonsense into law last year; and it only failed by 3 votes. If someone can believe, in the face of fact, that contraception is abortion, and thus, because of their belief that that is immoral, be exempted from their duty to cover it, they could just as easily believe that most other care is immoral (or liable to make meteors rain down from the sky if administered, for that matter; remember, counter factual doesn't matter if it's a “deeply held” belief. Or so the argument apparently goes). If the precedent is set whereby the employer's belief dictates the employee's healthcare coverage, why would contraception be the end of it?

Luckily, precedent has gone in the opposite direction before. The groundwork for this case was mostly laid in United States v. Lee, but the tone of the country has been changing fast. Religious freedom has come to stand for the freedom to force others to comply with your ideas of religion to many. One can only hope, however, that reason prevails in this instance as it did in that, and that the rights of employees are protected – and the spirit of the law, by which employees are finally guaranteed what the medical community has defined as core medical care, is preserved. No one should be denied healthcare coverage because their employer doesn't believe they should have it. That is what religious freedom in medicine looks like – you are free to make your own decisions about what types of care you will utilize based on your own beliefs and inclinations. You. Not your boss. Not Hobby Lobby.

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