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David J. Dunn, PhD Headshot

Why Christians Should Worry About Hobby Lobby's 'Victory'

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HOBBY LOBBY
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Hobby Lobby won its case in the Supreme Court. It may now opt out of certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. In particular, this family owned, for-profit corporation has the right to refuse insurance coverage of contraceptive methods to which it has "sincerely held" religious objections (see PDF of the ruling). I am not a lawyer, so I can speak little to the practical legal implications of this decision, but as an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, I can think of several reasons Christians should be bothered by Hobby Lobby's victory.

Beliefs are not facts. Family owned corporations can now ignore laws on the basis of faith, but faith is subjective and often wrong. Consider Plan B. Evangelicals often oppose it because they believe it induces abortion. It doesn't. But that doesn't matter. Hobby Lobby can refuse to offer health plans that cover it. Mostly just because.

Contraception is pro-life. If you want to prevent abortions, then prevent unwanted pregnancies. Birth control pills may not seem like that much of a burden if you are middle class, but things are different for low wage workers. Many chose to forgo contraception in favor of food and rent. Then abortion can seem like a responsible decision. Of course, self-righteous folks will say things like, "Well then they shouldn't have sex!" Or "Use condoms! They're cheaper!" Whatever. Even if those outrageously smug judgments were true, the world of "should" is not the world that is. We need to respond to the way things are, not the way we believe they should be.

Religions are different. Sometimes conservative Christians forget that they aren't the only religion in this country, which is why they often do things like support state vouchers for private schools, until someone points out that the law would also apply to Muslims. And what about the diversity within religions? Evangelical Christians are generally fine with contraceptives that (they believe) do not cause abortions, but the Catholic Church considers all medical birth control sinful. Then there are Christian groups which oppose vaccinations or reject modern medicine altogether. What happens when they ask for exemptions to provisions of the ACA they oppose? Hobby Lobby's win may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for conservative Christians. The law is like that. Precedent matters.

This sets an ambiguous precedent. One reason the Supreme Court cited for upholding a ban on polygamy in Reynolds v. United States (1878) was that society simply will not function without a modicum of civil uniformity, which would be undermined by individuals claiming religious exemptions to laws they oppose. Like I said, I am no lawyer, but Justice Ginsberg points to this problem when she balks at the "startling breadth" of this verdict in her dissent. The majority justices tried to write their decision narrowly, so that it would only apply in this or similar situations, but therein lies the rub! Analogies are the bread and butter of the legal profession! How similar do future cases have to be? What happens when a corporation owned by Jehovah's Witnesses objects to paying for blood transfusions, or a corporation owned by Christian Scientists wants to opt out of the ACA altogether? I am not trying to make a slippery slope argument. I doubt such extreme and life-threatening exemptions would be upheld. That's not what worries me! I worry about a judiciary that has set itself up to do theology.

The Supreme Court has made itself a religious arbiter. The majority justices say that Hobby Lobby (and other family owned corporate enterprises) can opt out of a part of the ACA that violates their "sincerely held religious beliefs." Personally, I would rather not have people who probably do not understand my faith deciding how serious I am about it. This verdict (as Ginsberg notes) injects the judiciary deeply into the inner-workings of religious doctrines. When future plaintiffs bring their cases before the courts, justices will need to ask, "How important are these doctrines, really?" Thus, while this decision seems to support religious liberty now, it has the potential one day to restrict it.

Of course, some might object that there is a difference between not offering insurance that covers birth control and blocking access to birth control altogether. This argument makes sense to me. In the same vein, refusing to pay for someone's cancer treatments is not the same thing as preventing them from getting it, right? Of course, cancer is a life-or-death issue, contraceptive access is not (unless you count prevented abortions). But these objections should not distract us from the main point.

The ambiguity of this precedent worries me the most. It worries me as an Eastern Orthodox Christian because, though my church is not a minority religion in the world (just look at Russia), it is not well understood in the United States. I do not look forward to a future in which people with law degrees get to start trying to do theology, to understand how my church works, which doctrines are really important, and how sincere I am in my belief about them.

But this is not an Eastern Orthodox issue. It is certainly not just a Christian issue! The way the Supreme Court has inserted itself into religion with this case should make anyone with "sincerely held" religious beliefs a little bit nervous.