THE BLOG
03/24/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated May 24, 2014

Religious Refusal's Long Discriminatory History

I've seen discrimination masquerade as religious liberty long before Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties waged a Supreme Court challenge against the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive care rule.

After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposition to the law remained fierce. One way opponents resisted the law was by claiming it violated business owners' religious liberty. In South Carolina, for instance, the owner of a chain of barbecue restaurants, Piggie Park Enterprises, was sued for refusing to serve Black customers. The owner claimed the Civil Rights Act was invalid because it "contravenes the will of God" and constitutes an interference with the "free exercise of the Defendant's religion."

The court that heard the argument was not impressed. Instead the court ruled that while Piggie Park's owner had every right to hold his religious beliefs, he had no right to practice them in a way that violated the constitutional rights of others. "This court refuses to lend credence or support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs," the court declared.

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear a similar argument made by the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, who believe that the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive care mandate should not apply to them. They argue that their businesses should be exempt from providing insurance for their employees' birth control because it violates their "sincerely held religious beliefs." The Court should reject, once again, these attempts to resurrect the long-discredited notion that a business' religious beliefs can not only exempt it from a democratically passed law, but also empower it to discriminate.

Denying women contraceptive coverage is an insidious form of discrimination. The Guttmacher Institute found that women who are able to successfully plan when and how often they have children are more likely to complete their education, find and maintain a job, and fully participate in their community. Only by having control of her reproductive life can a woman freely choose her role in society. This is why, more than a decade ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made clear that refusing to provide insurance coverage for contraception is sex discrimination.

If the courts allow corporations to justify this sort of discrimination, it will be a blow for women's equality that will embolden other forms of discrimination. We will see more proposed laws justifying discrimination on religious grounds, such as the Arizona bill that Gov. Jan Brewer rightly vetoed, which could have allowed religious business owners to deny service to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people because of who they are.

Religious liberty is one of the most important rights we have as Americans, and people of faith, such as my college teacher Martin Luther King Jr., have been instrumental in building a more perfect union. But as history all-too-often repeats itself, we cannot ignore that slavery, Jim Crow laws, and denial of women's suffrage were all once justified on religious grounds.

The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties have every right to their religious beliefs, much like the owner of Piggie Park did nearly half a century ago, but they do not have the right to impose their views on their employees.

Discrimination should never be allowed to seek protection behind a religious veil. The Supreme Court should once again uphold the principle that freedom of religion does not give businesses permission to impose their religious beliefs on others, particularly when it undermines equality. This is not the first time we have seen such arguments, but it should be the last.

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