What do a fetus and a corporation now have in common?
Legally, they’re both people. And in some situations, their rights take precedence over those of actual people.
I hope you won’t turn off to the upcoming Hobby Lobby Supreme Court battle thinking it’s just a boring, incomprehensible conversation about that distant thing called the Constitution.
To summarize the case: Hobby Lobby’s owner (remember, Hobby Lobby is a corporation, not an actual person) says the company shouldn’t have to follow the new federal requirement to include no-cost birth control in employee health-care insurance. Note that Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to dispense or encourage birth control, and employees are not required to use it.
But the company’s owner says the company has a right to not follow the law if doing so would violate his religious beliefs. “Freedom of religion, free of government interference,” is the rallying cry.
You don’t see companies refusing to provide legally-required handicap parking or accessible bathrooms because of religious beliefs. You don’t see companies refusing to obey food safety regulations in company cafeterias or worker safety regulations on factory floors because of religious beliefs.
No, “religious beliefs” are always about sex.
The Religious Right says the Hobby Lobby case is about freedom of religion. Their deliberate misinterpretation of our Constitution is shameful.
The Bill of Rights guarantees that government will let PEOPLE worship however they wish, and won’t force PEOPLE to worship in ways they don’t want. It’s the most radical promise of its kind in human history, of which every American (including atheists) should be proud.
But under the guise of religious freedom, Hobby Lobby and other “conscience clause” believers want to opt out of government regulations that have nothing to do with worship.
Contraception is not about worshipping. You want to worship, go ahead. You want to preach against contraception, go ahead. You want to try to dissuade others from contracepting, go ahead.
You want your company to be exempt from a law that allows other people to do things you disapprove of? No. That’s how they run things in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, not in a modern democracy.
Hobby Lobby says it can’t obey the law because it would be helping others behave in ways it finds unacceptable. That’s like saying you can’t stop at a red light in front of a mosque because you’d be enabling people to pray to Allah. Or that your taxi company can’t pick up people in Black neighborhoods and take them to White neighborhoods because you’d be helping the races mix.
Religious beliefs should not give anyone—or any corporation—an exemption from following civil laws.
And consider: What about companies with all white employees who want to discourage contraception not because of religious belief, but because they fear people of color are taking over the country? Is one reason really better than another?
Privileging religious belief over other “sincerely held beliefs” is anti-democratic at its core. It suggests that some people’s beliefs are more important than others. I think Napoleon says I shouldn’t provide clean bathrooms for my employees, the law says I’m wrong. I think Jesus wants me to reject America’s new health insurance regulations, that should be OK?
And let’s talk about those bathrooms. It apparently says right there in the Bible (as well as the Koran) that women should not be too damn uppity (I’m paraphrasing here). So what if an employer decides to provide bathrooms for male employees but not for female employees, who really should stay home? Or if an employer decides that pregnant women shouldn’t work, and claims the right to fire a woman as soon as she becomes pregnant? Or if an employer decides that the Bible demands obedience in children, and insists on hiring 13-year-olds despite child labor laws?
Once you let “sincerely felt beliefs” exempt people, there’s no limit to how much they can challenge a democracy’s laws.
And that affects all of us. That’s why the “freedom of religion” argument is bogus. This isn’t about challenging a law that prevents people from worshipping or believing as they will. It’s about challenging a law whose democratic, scientific ideology they reject—and hiding behind Mary’s skirts to do so.
A year of living in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria might help these people understand what it really means to lose freedom of religion.
Hobby Lobby is dishonest. Jesus wouldn’t like that. But then again, very little of the Religious Right’s behavior is about what Jesus would like. It’s mostly about economic and political power—which Jesus apparently understood quite well.
I cover this issue extensively in my book America’s War On Sex: The Attack on Law, Lust, & Liberty, recently released in an updated edition.