For the last two weeks of July, Faitheist is being guest hosted by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The piece below is written by Jones; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.
The Supreme Court has delivered its verdict, but controversy over Hobby Lobby v. Burwell staggers forward. Observers continue to parse the case’s implications for religious liberty and, like many of them, I’m troubled by what lies ahead.
It seems clear that the high court’s ruling allows individuals to turn the secular, for-profit corporations they own into a vehicle for imposing their religious views on others. That, in turn, dangerously undermines the First Amendment.
But not all agree, and Hobby Lobby’s supporters aren’t limited to the religious right. The conflict at the heart of the debate is an economic one, too; there’s no way to escape the fact that it pits workers’ rights against employers’ beliefs.
As a result, the case’s outcome has also divided secularists, who’d normally balk at the prospect of expanding religious exemptions to federal law.
Politically, secularists are united primarily by their agreement the government shouldn’t endorse religion. Beyond this, the movement is subject to the same ideological factions you’d find anywhere else.
That’s to be expected given the nature of the cause. Support for a secular government doesn’t necessarily demand support for a particular economic philosophy; secularism is, and should be, a non-partisan issue. But when closely held corporations are granted unprecedented rights—including the right to exercise religion—the implications for secularism are inescapable.
That presents a significant challenge to its advocates. Secularism is, after all, a very old idea. And although it’s guaranteed by the Constitution, it’s unlikely that the architects of the First Amendment could have predicted a future in which such massive corporations exist—let alone corporations that can exercise religion.
Even a decade ago, secularists would have been at a loss to anticipate the Hobby Lobby case. That much is clear from the history of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Passed in 1993, RFRA was inspired by a Supreme Court verdict inhibiting the free exercise of Native American religions, and it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Those supporters included many church/state separationists, who believed the bill would protect the rights of minority religious groups, and ensure that everyone receives equal protection from the government. That was, and is, a staunchly secular cause.
By ruling for Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court interpreted RFRA far differently than most of its original supporters anticipated. Now, instead of functioning as a horizontal right that provides equal protection to employer and worker, the principle of religious liberty has been effectively turned on its head and weighted in favor of employers.
The ruling negatively affects a remarkably broad spectrum of the American population; anyone, really, who falls anywhere outside the Evangelical tradition professed by Hobby Lobby’s owners. And that makes it a matter for the secular movement to address. If the owner of a for-profit corporation can wield such significant influence over the medical care his employees access based on nothing but his religious beliefs, the rights of his employees necessarily suffer.
After all, there are plenty of people of faith (and atheists) whose belief traditions condone or even encourage contraception use for family planning purposes. And there are many women who require contraception for the treatment of medical conditions like severe anemia, endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
By declaring your support for Hobby Lobby, you agree that it’s acceptable for business owners to penalize women workers. You imply that whatever rights these workers possess are secondary to the rights of their employers. And you allow one religious tradition to determine the equation for everyone else.
That equation has just one solution: Put the rights of employers and employees back on equal footing. If your economic philosophy has a libertarian bent, that might be difficult to accept.
But the reality is that fewer restrictions on the practices of business owners aren’t going to restore the religious freedom rights of Hobby Lobby employees. Legislative fixes like the “Not My Boss’ Business Act,” proposed by Sens. Patty Murray and Mark Udall (and promptly blocked by Senate Republicans), might. And that means putting a check on the power that business owners can currently wield over their employees.
Thanks to Hobby Lobby, libertarian secularists may now find themselves unable to reconcile their economic principles with their support for a religiously neutral government. Libertarianism hasn’t historically been incompatible with secularism, and it still might not be now—but anyone espousing both views has serious questions to answer.
Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.