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  • Olivier Douliery / <252>McClatchy-Tribune

    Demonstrators react to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday in favor of Hobby Lobby.

  • Photographer: Ted Wilson

    Timothy Sandefur

Viewpoints: Hobby Lobby ruling only protects religious rights

Published: Thursday, Jul. 3, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 3, 2014 - 6:43 am

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision set off a wave of panic that can only strike those who read the opinion as bizarre. Don’t believe the hype: The court issued a narrow ruling.

And while it was a victory for religious conservatives, it certainly does not – as Congressman Ami Bera and Dr. Jeanne Conry claimed in their Tuesday op-ed in The Sacramento Bee – put employers “in control of their employees’ personal health decisions.”

Instead, the court made clear that government can ensure access to contraception by paying for it directly, instead of forcing employers to fund contraception against their religious beliefs.

That’s only fair. Business owners are people, and their beliefs matter to them. One way we respect people’s beliefs is that we don’t force them to pay for things they don’t believe in. I’m not forced to contribute to a church I’m not a member of, and I can’t force others to pay for me to do things they disagree with. We can agree to disagree peacefully.

But that’s not how Obamacare works. Among its many mandates, that law forces employers to pay for services such as contraception, even if they have religious objections. And under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, when the government imposes requirements that contradict someone’s religious beliefs, it must do so in the narrowest way possible.

All the justices said Monday was that since the Obama administration could just pay for contraception directly, instead of forcing religious employers to do so, the contraception mandate was not the narrowest way to accomplish the goal of full insurance coverage.

It’s hardly an extreme decision. It did not block the availability of contraception, or force workers to get their bosses’ approval. It simply said that the government can find ways to provide it without forcing Hobby Lobby’s owners to sacrifice their beliefs.

Imagine if the government forced business owners to buy their employees’ lunches. Should a vegan employer who believes deeply in animal rights be forced to provide hamburgers? Could government provide people with transportation by forcing environmentalists to buy gas-guzzling cars for their workers?

We often express our values by choosing what to buy and what not to buy – and it’s ironic that many of the same people who boycotted Chick-fil-A restaurants over its owners’ views on same-sex marriage now insist that Hobby Lobby’s owners have no right to express their values in the same way.

Nor should people lose their religious freedom rights just because they do business as a corporation. Corporations – like teams, clubs and other organizations – are one way people express their values. And just as an animal rights activist shouldn’t be forced to subsidize hunting, neither should People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, even though it’s a corporation.

Whatever one thinks of the morality of abortion or the importance of contraception, the court’s ruling reflects the basic proposition that as a nation of diverse, sometimes conflicting faiths, we can coexist only by respecting other people’s differences.

Yet diversity is just what the Obama administration and its supporters won’t tolerate. Justice Elena Kagan made that clear months ago when she told Hobby Lobby’s lawyers that if they won, “one religious group could opt out of this and another religious group could opt out of that, and everything would be piecemeal, and nothing would be uniform.” A nation that cherishes diversity should always be suspicious of “uniformity.”

Nothing fosters diversity more than freedom, but freedom is incompatible with the host of mandates that make up Obamacare. Those mandates are the unfortunate consequence of America’s messed-up health insurance system, in which government regulations force workers to buy coverage through their employers. Real health reform would start by freeing the market so that people can get health insurance just as they now buy car insurance or homeowners’ insurance – not through employers, but directly.

If Bera and Conry “believe that health care decisions should be made between a patient and her doctor, not her boss,” then isn’t it time to end the government’s stranglehold over the health care industry?

Freedom of choice is critical to fixing health care. But that means ending the mandates, letting each individual decide – and respecting the choices of those who see things differently.


Timothy Sandefur is a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed a brief in support of Hobby Lobby.

Read more articles by Timothy Sandefur



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