06/13/2014 06:20 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

Twisting Religious Liberty Into Religious Discrimination

Is a business owner's religious belief more important than an employee's right to health care? That's the question the Supreme Court is considering in the Hobby Lobby case, which serves as an example of how corporations are trying to use their owner's religious beliefs in order to discriminate against their own employees free from criminal or civil penalties. When I spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing on the subject yesterday, I pointed out that if Hobby Lobby's attempt to distort religious liberty into a discrimination weapon is successful, it may have massive implications on the U.S. labor market and for religious rights in general.

Americans of all religions and of no religions should recognize that religious liberty will only persevere if we understand that the right to believe as one sees fit is paramount, it's not up to governments to become thought police. But when people act on what they perceive to be the duties of their faith, such actions cannot interfere with the rights of others. For when it does interfere, it ceases to be religious liberty and becomes religious imposition.

If religious liberty becomes simply the right to act on one's prejudices free from consequences, those of minority worldviews will find themselves in a situation similar to those faced prior to the founding of America. Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious and irreligious minorities will face increased discrimination, whether from their neighbors, or from businesses, or from government officials. Similarly, members of marginalized secular groups such as those in the the LGBTQ community may be harassed for what others perceive as "sinful" qualities related to who they happen to love. In addition, government officials could outright refuse to work for the interests of religious and philosophical minorities because of their belief that those minorities are heretical and should be opposed.

Does this defense of religious liberty seem strange coming from an atheist? Nonreligious Americans are regularly mistaken as opponents to religious liberty. But those who make this mistake forget that true religious liberty must include not only the ability to practice a particular faith, but also the option to not believe as one sees fit. Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and non-theists of all types are therefore extremely invested in the concept of religious liberty, as without it we'd be unprotected from the whims of the religious majority.

Humanists and our progressive religious allies are understandably concerned about how this attempt to corrupt religious liberty will impact government funding for scientific research and public health. Citizens who claim that it goes against their religious rights to support government funding of certain types of scientific research, such as research into cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and juvenile diabetes that utilize embryonic stem cells, could significantly jeopardize public health and science. Likewise, business owners who claim that the provision of certain medicines violates their sincerely held religious beliefs could jeopardize the health of their employees and could cause a significant burden on the government to provide those resources in their stead. These exemptions from providing medicine and medical procedures could open the floodgates to corporate religious exemptions for other important medical procedures such as: blood transfusions, immunizations, and psychiatric care.

Really, almost any medical procedure could be seen as violating the religious beliefs of one or more religious group or sect. On the on hand, conservative religious beliefs about the origin of personhood and end-of-life choices frequently come into conflict with rapidly changing medical capabilities. And adherents of the Church of Scientology, including many business owners, tend to oppose the use of psychiatry and many psychotropic medications, and may therefore seek exemptions to being required to cover such treatment. A Christian Scientist employer might use a precedent set here to refuse to cover almost any medicine. Such exemptions could expand well beyond the health care arena, and include: corporate religious exemptions to discrimination, child labor and safety laws, even Social Security taxes.

There is a lot riding on these cases before the Supreme Court. Deciding that the religious rights of the employer are more important than health care rights of the employee will not only greatly affect the labor community in America, it will set a precedent that allows individuals, religious groups, and corporations to be exempt from any law or regulation that they suddenly find to be opposed to their religious teachings. If that happens the door will be open to degrading religious liberty into religious imposition and discrimination, and we may find it extremely difficult to close that door.