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Norma Cook Everist Headshot

The Free Exercise of Religion for Whom?

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Monday's Supreme Court ruling that the Hobby Lobby crafts store chain does not have to provide all forms of birth control for its employees marks the first time the high court has said some businesses can hold religious views under federal law, in cases where there is essentially no difference between the business and its owners.

All sorts of issues flow from this decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and three other justices, sharply disagreeing with the five conservatives on the court, wrote:

In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Here are a few issues that I see as central to the First Amendment:

  1. David and Barbara Green, in communications to their employees, call them "family." These thousands of people, diverse in backgrounds and beliefs, are not their family. A nice metaphor, but the word presumes a patriarchal and matriarchal role of being domineering in making personal health decisions for employees, particularly in regard to women and inconsequential sex.
  2. The Greens assert that the Supreme Court decision is helping save the nation. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment precisely is for the purpose of freedom of religion for all. It is neither the privilege nor the calling of one sector of one religion to claim for itself the role of "Savior of the nation."
  3. In the First Amendment there is no mention of "sincerely held" religious beliefs. Who is to decide one's sincerely? The nature of a belief? The quality of a religious practice? The First Amendment protects each person's exercise of each one's religion. The complexity of how one person's practice many interfere with another's has been and will be debated for years. However, sincerity is not the measure.
  4. The Establishment clause of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," has provided the freedom to establish faith communities, build houses of worship, pray, teach and learn. For years religious groups have been free from property taxation. But this freedom from taxation has stopped short of commercial enterprise. A church or synagogue or mosque may be used for worship and religious education but when it becomes a store to sell things for profit, its activities are taxed. Freedom of religion -- no matter how sincere -- needs to continue to be kept separate from commercial enterprise. Are corporations people? Even privately owned ones have a goal to make money. They should not be exempt from laws which are for the welfare of all people no matter if their mission statement is "dedication" to certain religious principles.
  5. No Hobby Lobby store is open on Sunday "in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family." That is their choice. If they have gone as far as the Supreme Court to not allow their employees to have insurance coverage for all forms of birth control, perhaps they should post a sign that they will sell their crafts only to people who agree with their sincerely held beliefs. That would be logical. But that of course would not make them "open to the public" in a commercial sense.
  6. The Green family has ventured into wanting to impose their particular private beliefs on the public. Steve Green is a driving force in the initiative to place a Bible-based academic curriculum in the nation's public schools. It is his right to build a business and try to establish a work environment that "builds character, strengthens individuals and nurtures families," as he defines those terms, but the Constitution does not allow the Green family to impose their "sincerely held beliefs" on the children of the entire nation. That would mean the loss of religious freedom for everyone.

Now, I happen to be a Christian, although not of the same branch as the Hobby Lobby owners. I treasure the Constitution. I, a progressive -- a liberal -- on this issue could certainly be considered a strict constitutionalist. I hold to the First Amendment. That means institutional separation of church and state. And it certainly means separation of commercial enterprises from another person's beliefs. The First Amendment insures freedom from religious domination, particularly by the powerful over the less powerful, freedom from having decisions of life and belief and health determined by someone else.

Sincerely, The free exercise of religion is for the worker as well as the boss!

Fifty years ago the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson just a few hours after House approval on July 2, 1964. Yes, there are some connections here. We still have challenges!