The Ink Well: Exploring the Depths of Communication

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Hobby Lobby and Religious Beliefs

The Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case, allowing closely held for-profit businesses to deny access to contraception based on religious belief, opens up a huge can of worms. Or two. Or perhaps more.

The implications are widespread. For one thing, the court's ruling means the religious beliefs of the business trump those of the employee. The ruling was somewhat narrow in that it only affected businesses in which five or fewer people hold at least 50 percent of the stock, but it was still significant in that it essentially granted rights previously reserved for people to business entities.

The practical result of this is that businesses, with their superior resources, have an advantage over workers when it comes to protecting religious rights. Government regulation has traditionally been used to offset that advantage and has become even more crucial with the decline of labor unions. Now that the court has eliminated that counterbalance, businesses will have the upper hand in enforcing rights and calling them "religious."

It's important to note that the use or prohibition of contraception isn't central to any religious practice. It's not part of the Ten Commandments, despite the business owners' claims that their religious rights as Christians were being violated. And, as far as I'm aware, contraception isn't a core issue in the scripture or ancient oral traditions of any major religious belief. 

And what about the beliefs of those who practice contraception for any number of ethical reasons? Maybe they can't afford to raise a child. Perhaps they want to do their part in easing human population growth. Maybe they just don't believe they would be good parents. Are any of these stands somehow "less moral" than the business' religious-based morals? The Supreme Court has, in effect, declared them to be so.

(It's worth noting the issue here isn't cost. Hobby Lobby wasn't arguing against being forced to assume added insurance costs for elective medical purchases - its insurance offers coverage for Viagra and Cialis. The stated objection is religious, not economic.)

As a result of today's ruling, closely held businesses may be able to refuse their workers virtually any kind of service or benefit simply by claiming it violates their religious beliefs. Perhaps they'll refuse to hire women because they believe "a woman's place is in the home." Or maybe they'll decide workers can't drink on their own time because alcohol is "the devil's brew." Gay and lesbian workers may have to go back in the closet if they want to work for such businesses, and those who follow spiritual paths - ranging from Wicca and Asatru to Islam and Buddhism - that don't conform to the business owner's definition of spirituality may be at risk, too.

If government regulation of health coverage can be overturned, what about government regulation of hiring practices, building codes, etc.? This decision could even reopen for discussion whether landlords are within their rights if they refuse to rent to prospective tenants on religious or pseudo-religious grounds.

The second problem with the decision is more basic, reflecting a position being pushed by some groups that "religious" ethics are superior to personal ethics. In the Hobby Lobby decision, the court has chosen to ratify the religious ethics of the business at the express of workers' personal ethics. By doing so, they have handed a resounding victory to those who claim that all true morality stems from religion. "Without God, there is no morality!" they declare. Religion, they say, is a moral bulwark against a philosophical free-for-all that spawns moral free agents who make up their own mind what's right and wrong.

I for one would rather deal with individual "moral free agents" than religious crusaders and jihadists who are backed by powerful groups and therefore have the wherewithal to commit mass atrocities in the name of their religion. Such actions are anything but moral, and they're far more difficult to address. Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson did some horrific things, but they pale in comparison to the acts that have been committed by al-Qaida, the Catholic Church or Boko Haram.

The problem is, religious leaders often put their “cause” ahead of their own stated ethical injunctions. The cause of defending their dogma. The cause of spreading their beliefs. The cause of lining their pockets. They sacrifice high-minded ideals for a baser cause, justifying heinous and horrific acts on the all-too-convenient grounds that their gods cannot be judged by human standards. Religion is all too often used as a rationalization for defying morality rather than a defense of it.

Religion is a poor defense against unethical behavior because it often follows an agenda it views as "higher" than morality. A government free from any such agenda offers a much better defense against unethical action, precisely because it can hold individuals to account for such actions regardless of their intent. If you kill someone, that's against the law. You can't claim you were sacrificing your obnoxious next-door neighbor to some deity. That won't fly in court. You can't refuse to pay your taxes on the grounds that the Jewish scripture mandates a jubilee year in which all debts are forgiven. Guess what? You still owe the IRS. You can't allow your kid to die because you don't believe in blood transfusions. Or if you do, you're going to prison (and rightfully so).

Enforcing these laws isn't a violation of anyone's religion. But what the Supreme Court has just done is - at least partly - dismantled the defense that government provides against the ethical abuses too frequently practiced in the name of religion. It has bought the argument that religious ethics (even when they're not followed) are somehow more valid than personal ethics. And, disturbingly, it has set a precedent that "religious" actions that violate others' personal ethics should be protected - even when such actions violate the rule of law. 

Religious extremism got a shot in the arm today, and personal ethics suffered a punch to the gut.

 

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Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."

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