“[A]round the world[,] freedom of religion is under threat. We see governments engaging in discrimination against the faithful. We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being — dignity that no earthly power can take away. And central to that dignity is freedom of religion — the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose and to do this free from persecution and fear. [H]istory shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people — including the freedom of religion — are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful. Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence.”
These powerful words could have been spoken by a minister. Or by an advocate for the two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, now pressed by the government to provide abortion-inducing contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. Or by the authors of one of the 59 separate “friend of the court” briefs filed in their landmark case that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
They weren’t spoken by any one of them. Rather, they were uttered by President Barack Obama at last month’s National Prayer Breakfast.
Herein is the paradox at the heart of the high court case, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, pitting the divisive Affordable Care Act against many religious organizations, leaders and First Amendment advocates in this country. Why, when the president so highly praises religious freedom, is his administration so hostile to the free exercise of religion?
The case will test the merits of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in 1993. The Supreme Court has held that it applies to the federal government, although not to the states. Hobby Lobby, a company that bases its practices and operations around Christian belief, and Conestoga Wood, a Mennonite cabinetry manufacturer, contend that in requiring them to dispense contraceptives, the ACA violates that law.
There are at least three misconceptions about this case that many media outlets have promulgated. First, they claim that corporations do not enjoy constitutional rights. Second, they say that these companies are imposing their religious beliefs on employees. Third, they believe that religious beliefs, not religious actions, are protected by the First Amendment. All three of these views are incorrect.
It is well established that all entities, including businesses, enjoy constitutional rights such as the freedom of speech. Indeed, the landmark First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan guaranteed such constitutional protections to a media corporation, the New York Times Co. Subsequent rulings in recent decades have further enshrined the rule that corporations — even though they do not live or breathe or have feelings — are permitted to act according to the values and principles central to their existence. There can be no doubt that Christianity is central to the mission and business practices of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.
Some in the media, including The New York Times, argue that this case is about businesses imposing religious beliefs: “the Constitution’s establishment clause enforce[es] the separation of church and state and bar[s] government from favoring one religion over another or nonbelievers.” Siding with Hobby Lobby would “grant private for-profit employers an exemption that would effectively allow them to impose their beliefs on employees to deny them a valuable government benefit.”
This perspective misidentifies the party whose actions need to be scrutinized. Under the Constitution, it is Congress that is proscribed from either “respecting an establishment of religion” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The ACA does not respect or require religious belief or action. But on the contrary, the ACA does limit the exercise of religious action by companies.
Finally, it is not correct that one can have religious freedom while still being limited to private belief or to services within a religious sanctuary. At the height of its irreligion, even the Soviet Union did not seek to control a man’s beliefs or to bar him from attending a church. But it most assuredly did not protect religious freedom. All references to God, all policy arguments about religion and all actions in public life based upon faith were forbidden. Secularism was the Soviet state religion.
Our nation is different. We know that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution enshrine every individual’s right and privilege to worship God and to enjoy a robust conception of religious freedom. In the Hobby Lobby case, we urge the Supreme Court to underscore these first principles — just as President Obama did at the National Prayer Breakfast.
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