Hobby Lobby Decision Reflects Supreme Court’s Special Treatment of Pro-Life Views
Today, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Hobby Lobby vs Sebelius that “pro-life” business owners may abstain from covering women’s contraceptives that violate their religious beliefs. This is not only a major blow to women’s rights, but also to the equal treatment of all religions and religious beliefs under the law. It also raises questions about how our government allows certain belief systems a level of respect and legal “protection” that it does not afford other belief systems.
This decision reflects just how ingrained is our tendency to put “faith” on a pedestal at the expense of other considerations. Government has long since gone beyond its mandate to protect the free exercise of religion, as outlined in the First Amendment, and into the undemocratic practice of imposing certain religious beliefs on Americans.
Even now, with society becoming ever more secular and former taboos like gay marriage becoming widely accepted, the pernicious idea that faith – specifically pro-life faith – has some special right to protection persists. None of the progress made on gay marriage has extended to abortion; if anything, adversity has compelled vocal minorities of religious people to take ever-more-extreme positions on abortion and contraception.
The idea that individuals, corporate or otherwise, are entitled to special legal exceptions based on their personal beliefs defies the very nature of government. The existence of a democratic republic relies on the understanding that we must compromise our own personal beliefs for the good of something beyond ourselves. We do this every day. Yet, religious conservatives operate under the assumption that their beliefs are entitled to a special level of respect. Perhaps this is because they believe we are a “Christian nation” or perhaps it just stems from plain old ignorance. Either way, other religious and ideological beliefs claim that the entire country should function according to their beliefs.
There is no better example than atheism. As an atheist, I resent the fact that religious institutions are, for no apparent reason, entitled to tax breaks, even those that preach intolerance and hatred of gays, other religions and atheists. Essentially, my taxpayer dollars fund religious institutions that teach innocent, impressionable children that atheists like me are sinners who will go to hell. Many of them preach similarly heinous things about Muslims and Jews. Even those religious establishments that preach a positive, tolerant message of respect and charity go against my fundamental conviction that God does not exist.
There are numerous other examples. Do Jews demand that all employers be required to let them stay home from work on on the Sabbath? Do Hindus object to the farm bill because it leads to the mistreatment of cows? Do anti-war Buddhists get a tax break because so much of our military budget goes towards war? All of these examples sound ridiculous because they SHOULD sound ridiculous.
To be fair, they are not comparable to today’s ruling on a legal basis. Sure, they’re exaggerated for effect. But on a moral and philosophical basis, the comparison is apt. The United States allows all religious beliefs and should require that it maintain strict neutrality toward the precepts of all of them – most critically, those beliefs should not dictate the policies of our government. Indeed, the government could not function at all if it had to avoid offending Americans with diverse religious beliefs.
Today’s Hobby Lobby ruling has a relatively narrow impact, applying only to closely-run, family-owned businesses. Nevertheless, it establishes a precedent for potentially unlimited mischief at the expense of the proper neutral position. And who is most likely to reap the benefits of this shattered Pandora’s box? It’s probably reasonable to guess that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Scientologists, Mormons, and others will not have quite as much luck promoting views that are not in line with those of evangelicals, because they’re the best organized and are afforded a special level of respect – at least by this Supreme Court, if not future ones. It’s safe to say that atheists and Muslims won’t have the same degree of influence.
Why is it that we think a small minority of Christians harping against a birth control mandate in a piece of legislation passed in both houses of Congress is somehow par for the course? Why are these people not laughed out of town? How does their ludicrous case make it all the way to the Supreme Court? Because the extremist “pro-life” cause has hijacked the national discourse and convinced even those who favor reproductive rights that their argument is a serious one, rather than the favored position of a minority of the population that thinks God has chosen them to launch a holy crusade on behalf of zygotes at the expense of women.
When it comes to advancing women’s reproductive rights, winning elections isn’t enough, although it is, of course, vitally important. We have to challenge the legal precedents and psychological misconceptions that make it possible for “pro-lifers” to commandeer our political system for their own anti-democratic purposes. As long as the special cultural privilege exists, we operate at a disadvantage.