The owners of Hobby Lobby, a private corporation, went all the way to the Supreme Court in the name of religious liberty. The Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby had the right to be exempt from paying for services which conflict with the religious convictions of the owners. The ruling applied a section of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as the mechanism for resolving the conflict between the interests of government and the values of free citizens. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided an easy way out of the conflict between private convictions and public agendas.
This resolution of the matter is not acceptable to some people, because there are actually citizens in the USA who do not want Christians to be free to live according their consciences. A law is being proposed in the US Senate which says that and employer ‘shall not deny coverage of a specific health care item or service’ such as abortifacient drugs mislabeled as contraceptives. The bill S2578 includes a statement intended to prevent an outcome in the Supreme Court such as the Hobby Lobby decision. It says that this provision “shall apply to employers notwithstanding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The title of the bill, “Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014,” cloaks the subversion of religious liberty in a political agenda that demonizes corporations and pretends to respond to a threat not in existence, all in order to move forward an agenda designed ultimately to shut all reference to religion or its moral and ethical teachings out of public life.
In the body of the bill S 2578, the Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case is referenced, and the accusation is made that “some for-profit corporations can take away the birth control coverage guaranteed to their employees and the covered dependents of such employees through their group health plan.” The reader will immediately notice that the language says, “take away” birth control coverage, a statement that is ridiculous in view of the fact that the employer in question provided 16 different methods of birth control.
S 2578 further states that the Hobby Lobby decision allows Hobby Lobby “to treat a critical women’s health service differently than other comparable services.” The “critical health service” is birth control, and the decision only addresses 4 of the 20 FDA-approved methods of birth control. With regard to the 4 pertinent items, the Supreme Court decision assures the employees that those 4 items will be available to the employees without cost-sharing, just as federal law requires. The change that takes place as a consequence of the decision is completely administrative and not visible in the experience of the employees. They suffer no loss. If they want abortifacient drugs at no charge to themselves, the Hobby Lobby decision in no way impedes their ability to obtain them and in no way costs them any money. The Hobby Lobby owners might actually wish that nobody used abortifacient drugs instead of birth control, but the decision rendered does not have that result. The Supreme Court protected the owners of Hobby Lobby without creating any intereference for someone who prefers to abort an existing baby rather than prevent conception in the first place.
The real consequence of the Hobby Lobby decision is that government is required to respect the religious conviction of the owners of Hobby Lobby, a conviction rooted in moral values upheld in their faith for thousands of years, a moral standard that says it is a sin for believers to participate in the murder of unborn human beings. Senator Murray’s bill fails to state that it is all about authorizing the murder of unborn babies, because the politicians do not want to say that the drugs in question are abortifacient, and they most emphatically do not want to say that abortion is the murder of unborn human beings. That sounds terrible. Barbaric. Completely uncivilized. It sounds like something the most primitive tribe along the Amazon would know was evil, so politicians do not want to say in public that they think the murder of unborn human beings is something every woman ought to be able to do, even if she must compel her employer to participate in the murder by paying for the drug that does the deed.
It is not possible to read the bill S 2578 without concluding that religious liberty is not respected by the supporters of this bill. The First Amendment to the US Constitution was passed by the very First Congress of the USA, and it was speedily ratified by all thirteen original states. Citizens in those states valued freedom from a state-sponsored religion and the freedom to exercise their own faith. They all felt that their faith was the proper source of guidance in matters of right and wrong, and when the state chose a course that conflicted with a person’s faith-guided conscience, the first citizens of our nation believed that the state should step back. The citizens who founded the USA did not want the government to decree moral standards; they felt that morality was best expressed in the consciences of voters who would, in their votes and in their voices to elected representatives, make their moral standards heard. It was expected that the moral voice of the people would be reflected in the actions of their elected representatives and senators. When the people’s representatives and senators overstepped their bounds, the first citizens of the USA looked to the Supreme Court to reign in the inappropriate actions of the Congress. Just as citizens today continue to do. It was the most natural thing conceivable that Hobby Lobby’s case should come to the Supreme Court, because it is an instance of conflict between a political agenda enacted into law and a citizen’s religious conviction which defines what is morally right and wrong. The First Amendment was intended to resolve those instances where such conflicts arose with a bias toward preserving personal religious liberty.
In the early 90’s a series of events led Congress to decide that the First Amendment protections were in danger, and Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to bolster the protections provided by the First Amendment. Harry Reid and many others who are still in the Senate today voted for that law. It was viewed as a good and necessary enhancement to protect religious liberty in the US.
Now, the Senate is considering a law that pulls the teeth of the very protections the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed to strengthen. This proposed law would override the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and force employers to do exactly what the Hobby Lobby decision exempted them from doing. This proposed bill is a malicious and vindictive assault on the freedom of people of any faith whatsoever to live according to the teachings of their faith.
This law is not only bad for the employers who are encumbered by the Affordable Care Act. It is an omen of future events. If the Congress of the United States of America passes such a law, it is a clear indicator that the Congress does not want citizens to have religious liberty. If this law passes, the next time Congress considers a law that requires people to do the opposite of what their faith teaches them is right, the precedent set by this law would be to include the same statement in the new law: “shall apply to employers notwithstanding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” If Patty Murry’s bill to force employers to pay for abortifacient drugs despite their religious convictions to the contrary, it will mean that the Congress has the desire and the will to end religious liberty in the USA.
Time for prayer. Time to write your Senator and say “Vote No on S 2578” . Time to tell your neighbor to do the same thing.
In his 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen L. Carter said, “autonomous religions play a vital role as free critics of the institutions of secular society.” The hubbub surrounding the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision makes it clear that the culture is flummoxed by any idea that a religion could be autonomous. It is autonomous religion that teaches its members to live by their principles 24/7. That little icon, 24/7, is the key to the decision in the Hobby Lobby case, and it underlies a great many ongoing disputes.
Twenty-first century culture deifies the notion of living 24/7. Be a dreamer. Seek your goals and don’t let anyone crush your dream. Stand up for yourself. Be who you are 24/7, and don’t let anyone steal your self from you. This is the mantra of secular self-actualization, but when a person of faith lives by his or her faith 24/7, all of a sudden this commitment means that this person wants to push his faith off on other people, and the culture cannot tolerate someone who does that. The fact that activities to explain faith or even invite other people to believe are not the same thing as becoming tyrannical over other people seems not to be important. The important thing is that somebody somewhere has decreed that people with religious faith must keep their faith to themselves, this despite the fact that other people’s beliefs assault people of faith in the form of ads on websites for general news and public service announcements ceaselessly teaching the philosophies politicians espouse make it difficult to watch or listen to any content on any subject without being invited, or even forcefully motivated, to think what someone else thinks is a good idea.
Comments online and even on television and twitter repeat the cultural accusation that the Supreme Court has ruled that an employer may invade the bedroom of an employee. Yet all the owners of Hobby Lobby ever asked was the Constitutional right to “exercise” their faith. They did not ask that the law be changed to require every American citizen to do what they do. They asked only to be free to live according to the teachings of their faith. They learned the teachings, because in the USA, their religion is autonomous. The government of the US, unlike the government of China, does not try to tell any religion what it must teach. Unlike the government of Tajikistan, it does not tell parents that they may not teach their religion to their children. Unlike the government of Laos, it does not withdraw citizenship from someone whose faith principles prevent him from celebrating local animist rituals that other citizens practice habitually. In the USA, the Constitution gives each religion the autonomy to decide its own teachings and the freedom to teach its adherents the principles of its faith. Every follower, like the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby is protected by the Constitution when “exercising” the principles taught by his religion.
Why does Carter believe that the role of religions is vital to a secular society? The answer lies in the values taught by religions. Secularists tend to think that whatever makes an individual happy is right for that individual. This rule of thumb may work for a person who lives in isolation, but not so well for communities. In a community, people need standards of more enduring value and broader application than each person’s individual muse.
The important thing to know about autonomous religion is that it operates independently; nobody outside the religion’s governing structures tells the religion what to believe or what to teach. An autonomous religion determines its beliefs, its teachings and its values without input from the culture or the government. In fact, those entities, important as they are, have no influence on the teachings of an autonomous religion. The religion has its own sacred sources from which it receives direction with regard to principles.
Furthermore, an autonomous religion reacts and develops independently of culture or government. In the Hobby Lobby case, the developments which resulted in passage of the Affordable Care Act derived from political considerations shaped by secular pressures in the culture. Politics may feel the need to respond to cultural pressure, because the people in the culture vote, but an autonomous religion has no obligation to voters. Its wisdom and moral guidance does not come from the culture; it comes from the religion’s sacred sources by means of writings, tradition, revelation or any combination of those elements. There may be religions that are culture-oriented, but if so, they are rare and sparsely followed. Hobby Lobby’s owners live by a religious tradition of values that go back thousands of years and that have been taught consistently to millions of believers. These religious values are shaped by revelation, tradition and sacred writings, none of which take any note of changing cultural trends. It is very common for cultural trends to clash with immovable religious standards. An attempt to compel people whose moral fiber is shaped by their faith poses incalculable stresses that the government need not impose. The Constitution is designed specifically to prevent the behemoth of government from imposing such stresses on people of faith.
The Constitutional solution is important for the health of the nation. When people are compelled to choose between faith and government, the pressure is incalculable. Early Christians faced exactly this kind of pressure, and there was no Constitutional protection for them. They were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and executed, because there was no protective buffer between individuals and that powerful government. Good people died, because they could not sacrifice the faith that sustained their lives. Strong people died. Talented people died. Leaders died. The Empire lost many valuable citizens because the empire of Rome could not tolerate autonomous religions.
Thank goodness the government of the USA is constrained by the Constitution to allow religions to exist in autonomy. The government may not choose a single religion and force everyone to belong. The chosen church may not deliver edicts to the head of state in opposition to the will of the people. In the USA, the autonomy of the religions sets up a culture in which the values taught by the religions are expressed in the political discourse and the decisions of the electorate, not in the administrative bureaucracy of government. The values expressed in the votes of the people become the values that shape specific acts, but at no time is any particular religion “in power.” The citizens with their votes are always “in power.”
The Hobby Lobby decision is an example of what happens when the autonomy of religions and the fundamental human rights of believers are respected. The Hobby Lobby decision gave government the guidance it needed in order to achieve what it said were compelling government interests without exerting tyrannical control over private citizens whose religious convictions were outraged by the Affordable Care Act.
Many people rejoice that the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is exempted from paying for insurance that covers medical services in conflict with the religious convictions of the owners. It is right and proper to give thanks for this outcome, but it would be foolhardy to believe that the Freedom From Religion Foundation will dissolve or that the federal government will no longer threaten the free exercise of religion. The decision in the Hobby Lobby case, along with two other cases that were bundled with it, was cast in very narrow language with the deliberate intent not to answer broader questions in connection with the case.
In fact, according to Mark Levin, a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law, the narrowness of the decision is actually a threat to the First Amendment. He pointed out in commentary delivered during his radio show on the evening of the decision that the decision is rooted in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, not in the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
In the syllabus for the case released by the Supreme Court on June 30, 2014, the foundation for the decision is stated:
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicabil¬ity” unless the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling govern¬mental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U. S. C. §§2000bb–1(a), (b). As amended by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), RFRA covers “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious be¬lief.” §2000cc–5(7)(A).
The short version of the decision is that the government has a compelling interest in providing women cost-free contraception in all the 20 forms currently available, but to compel an employer to underwrite the provision of any of the forms that conflicts with the employer’s religious convictions is not the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The high court declared, “The contraceptive mandate, as applied to closely held corporations, violates RFRA. Our decision on that statu¬tory question makes it unnecessary to reach the First Amendment claim raised by Conestoga and the Hahns.”
In RFRA, the justices found a way to confine their deliberations. They declined to comment on the relationship of this case to the First Amendment, and their unwillingness to assert this relationship is a threat in future cases where religious liberty is under attack. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was intended to bolster First Amendment protections, but as often happens to good intentions, the unintended consequence was to give the court a way not to strengthen the First Amendment.
This decision only narrowly won the day. Four of the nine justices dissented. Breyer and Kagan published a dissenting opinion stating that they believe that Hobby Lobby had no standing before the court. They affirmed the finding of the Third Circuit which had “held that a for-profit corporation could not ‘en¬gage in religious exercise’ under RFRA or the First Amendment, and that the mandate imposed no requirements on the Hahns in their personal capacity.” Ginsburg wrote an expansive dissent, in which she was joined by Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan, the last two excepting a small section of Ginsburg’s analysis. The bottom line is that four of the justices on the court do not believe that the most important element of the decision is legitimate. Four of the justices on the Supreme Court do not believe that a corporation engaged in business for profit has any right to exercise the religious convictions of its owners.
The disagreement between the majority and the minority in this decision lies in the definition of a person who has the right to exercise religious convictions. Most people think it is just common sense to recognize that when a human being marries, goes to school, or starts a business, he is the same human being as when he goes into his house or his church. Furthermore, most people think that religious teachings shape the way a person lives and works, and most of the criticisms of religious people by non-religious are centered on observations of hypocrisy – the failure of a religious believer to live up to the standards taught by his religion. To most people, it seems only normal that a person of faith operating a business will not stop living by the principles of his faith when he is at work.
The Hobby Lobby case hints that this might be true, but it constricts the language of the decision so tightly that it is not very comforting. Christians cannot relax. They would be well advised to study the way legal proceedings surrounding religion develop in countries with acknowledged secular governments. The government of the USA does not label itself “secular,” but the patterns of thinking with regard to religion expressed by the current administration have much more in common with the government of Tajikistan than with the US government during the administration of George Washington. Jesus said that his followers need to be “wise as serpents,” and that is because Christians will always be walking among serpents who desire to suppress and shut down any expression of Christian faith in public. Christians should give thanks that the Hobby Lobby decision helps many businesses in crisis with the Affordable Care Act, but they should not believe that this means that Christians will no longer be challenged when they express their faith.
It is interesting to surf the web and look at the constitutions, laws and international treaties which establish the legal environment of countries around the world. People who read the news that an American citizen was arrested in some country because he was a Christian do not often realize what really happened. They believe that these countries have a law buried in their legal code which can be summarized as, “Get rid of the Christians.” Americans tend to believe that the idea of state persecution is antiquated and could not be real in this century. It is a misconception to believe that persecution is energized by laws specifically ordering persecution. While numerous nations do have state religions, persecution can be equally severe in a nation with no religion at all.
Jesus predicted the downward spiral persecution would take:
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Luke 6:22
The four steps on the path to persecution are
3) injustice, and
Jesus said that these things would happen “on account of the Son of Man.”
In the US currently, the major threats to Christians and Christianity come from secularism. There are actually a number of countries where secularism is the source of the persecution. In the US the Freedom from Religion Foundation is one of the very active agents of secular restriction of Christianity. The cultural pressure to restrict Christians is energized by growing numbers of citizens who claim no religious connections and disavow any existence outside time and space. A pseudo-scientific agenda insists that “science has proved” things that science has never proved and insists on suppressing Christian thought, Christian practices, and even symbols of Christianity. This action in the culture, sometimes achieved by torturing logic in lawsuits alleging “establishment” infractions, is animated not only by outright atheists, but also by people who claim to be Christians. Such Christians support the notion that religion is a private matter that must not be brought into public forums in any form. Secularists and some progressive Christians claim that religious liberty is a thin disguise for religious privilege, while other progressive Christians completely deny the principles for which orthodox Christians are willing to die. In the US it is sometimes hard for orthodox Christians to know who their friends are.
In nations where secular thinking governs both the culture and the government to a greater degree than in the US today, it is possible to see what will come. If the pressure is not reduced by some means, the US will develop means of restricting and suppressing Christian faith just as other secular nations have done. In nations whose governments call themselves “secular” the constitution usually permits people to choose and belong to religions of their free choice, but there is no freedom that corresponds to the concept of “free exercise” that is included the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The US principle of “free exercise” is at the root of the deepest disputes with secularism. Below is a list of a few countries that currently feature prominently in any list of countries that persecute Christians. Since every country felt it necessary to create laws to restrain the influence of churches outside their worship spaces, and more laws to restrict the existence of worship spaces, it seems clear that these countries regard religion with all the enthusiasm hikers have for poison ivy.
- Uzbekistan – the constitution guarantees separation of church and state, but the state enacts laws that define what a church is, and churches are required to document compliance with that definition. This process corresponds roughly to the US requirement that organizations requesting tax-exempt status must prove compliance with the law in a 501 c 3 application.
In Uzbekistan, police showed up at the home of a Christian woman and demanded to search her home. They confiscated literature, her computer and her passport. She is accused of possessing religious literature that is not on the approved list. Until recently, it would have been unthinkable that the US government intruded into the content of religious literature or private religious observance. However, it is now documented that the IRS asked some groups applying for 501 c 4 status to document the content of their prayers.
- Tajikistan – the constitution states that the government is secular. The state enacts laws that define churches and specify restricted behaviors for the ostensible purpose of assuring that no religion achieves control of the state.
Tajikistan requires that education be completely secular. Children are forbidden to receive religious education before age 18. Both parents must approve if a child attends a worship service such as a funeral or wedding. The concept of state control of all education is similarly embodied in the German law that forbids even home schools to teach any curriculum counter to that of the state. The current demand by the federal government for all schools to teach federal Common Core curriculum is a step down that path. The recent refusal of the US Department of Justice to certify refugee status for a family that fled Germany over German law that forbids home schools to teach anything different than the government is an event with disturbing portent for American Christians who homeschool their children for the precise reason that they do not want their children to be taught what is taught in public schools.
In Tajikistan, the government confiscated two church buildings on the grounds that the buildings were not registered for religious meetings. In Marathon, Florida, when the city council invited local pastors to pray before council meetings, there was considerable public outcry at the notion of religious observance in a non-religious meeting place.
- Turkmenistan – the constitution states that the government is secular. It makes laws that define churches and the laws list approved religious literature.
In Turkmenistan, a man was severely beaten for possessing an e-book version of the Bible, because it was not the version registered with the government for Christians to use.
- Kazakhstan – The constitution states that Kazakhstan is a secular state, and the state makes laws to define churches, to register religious organizations and worship spaces, and to specify approved religious literature. It is illegal to entice or compel anyone to change his religion, although the constitution states that people may choose and change their religion at will.
In Kazakhstan a Christian man was dismissed from his job for mentioning his faith to fellow workers.
Each of these countries would tell anyone who asked that they have constitutional protection of religious liberty. Yet each of these countries feels the need to create laws to define and restrict all religious speech and activity, all under the guise of protecting religious liberty. These countries and others that have laws about registering religions and worship space and religious literature all have complex and lethargic bureaucracies that add another layer of restriction to religion, because some applications simply never quite make it through the process. US citizens should pay particular attention to the kinds of processes created as well as the bureaucratic structure created to administer the processes. Applicants who “got lost” in the process of applying for 501 c 4 status in the lead-up to the 2012 elections could testify to the ability of the federal government to restrict perfectly legal activity by creating a process and a bureaucratic snarl that effectively shuts the activity down. If the federal government in the US ever officially decides that unfettered religion is a danger to civil society, it already has a ready-made model which can be appropriated to address the “threat.”
The doorway to persecution in the USA is being pushed open by both cultural and political forces. The activists of persecution are pouring through the doorway. Many are busy about the work of opposition. Some are already in the business of disinformation. The courts in general still provide a bulwark against injustice, although secular thinkers increasingly allege that Christians who claim the right of “free exercise” of religion in opposition to government mandates amounts to demands for religious privilege. To date, Christians in the US have not been subject to mistreatment—arrest, torture or execution. It is still possible to enjoy religious liberty in the US, but that liberty is threatened on every hand. Both cultural and political pressure is increasing in the direction of restricting and suppressing any expression of Christian faith in daily life. It needs to be repeated that the pressure is increasing. It is bearable today, and egregious behavior that severely restricts Christians who try to live their faith has so far been stopped by courts faithful to the Constitution’s protection for religious liberty. Nevertheless, if Christians wish to continue to enjoy religious liberty in the USA, prayerful vigilance, and vigilant prayers will be required.
On March 25 and 26, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on two cases that grow out of the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. This case will be a crucial case for religious liberty. Regardless of anyone’s personal convictions about the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements for health insurance policies, everyone’s personal convictions about the free exercise of religion are at stake. The federal government’s argument on these cases to date has been to say that when someone opens his doors to conduct business, he has no right to exercise his religious convictions in the course of business transactions. The government is, therefore, attempting to create a barrier against free exercise of religion in public business. The government is saying that the human being who operates a business is not a person with the human right to free exercise of religion. The logic is the same logic by which an unborn human baby is declared not to be a person with the inalienable human right to life.
This Supreme Court case has profound implications for Christians with regard to their right to free exercise of faith. Jesus taught that his followers would live and act in relationship with him at all times and in all contexts—work, play, family, and so forth. The federal government is trying to create a box around business that forbids a Christian from acting on Christian principles when doing business. Christians must engage in prayerful vigilance and vigilant prayers for God’s will to be done in the Supreme Court as a consequence of the oral arguments on March 25 and March 26.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Luke 6:22). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.