Brian L. Bolton Graduate Essay Contest winner by Alex Flitter

Their ‘religious liberty’ infringes on us

By Alex Flitter
FFRF awarded Alex $3,000 for his first-place essay.

I got my first job when I was 13, a camp counselor job, looking after children not much younger than me for far below minimum wage. I thought I had a solid understanding of the employer-employee relationship.

Employees are hired to fulfill tasks that the employer needs completed. In return, the employee receives pay and possibly benefits. That’s where I thought the relationship ended. But since then, a transformation has occurred involving “religious liberty.” What used to mean the right to believe or not to believe in any religion you choose now appears to mean the right to impose what you believe on individuals over whom you have power.

Despite the claim that this is a Christian nation by partisan historians who believe the founders abhorred state/church separation, the Establishment Clause is clear. It prohibits an official state religion, including favoring one religion over others or supporting religion over irreligion. It’s a clear indication of how important religious neutrality was to the founders.

How did we get from the Establishment Clause to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith, a case in which two Native Americans in Oregon were fired after consuming peyote, ostensibly for religious reasons. After the court validated the firings, Congress passed RFRA in 1993.

It states that the government can’t “substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” It notes that it can burden religious exercise if it is done to further a “compelling interest” and is done using “the least restrictive means.” This history and legislation came to a head in the recent Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties sought an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health plans cover all birth control methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, citing the owners’ religious beliefs and RFRA. The court in a 5-4 decision found that closely held corporations could withhold benefits from employees due to religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the contraceptive mandate was a “substantial burden” to the owners. He interpreted RFRA to pertain to “humans who own and control corporations,” despite the fact that nothing in the Act indicates that it was ever supposed to facilitate the imposition of one’s beliefs on others.

I keep trying to get into the mind of a religious multimillionaire, to feel the “great burden” he’s supposedly feeling. I don’t doubt the sincerity, but the burden is nonexistent, and I can only conclude that these owners are simply trying to impose their beliefs on as many people as they can.

They believe that contraception, including the morning-after pill, is equivalent to abortion (physiology disagrees). Their argument is that providing this benefit substantially burdens their religious exercise without compelling justification, to paraphrase RFRA.

Except providing full health insurance coverage is not burdening them. They can still pray as they choose and abstain from contraception if they morally disagree with it. They don’t even have to offer health plans to their employees, but could instead pay a tax. The most important point is that whether or not a woman chooses to use contraception in no way hinders the employer’s ability to practice their religion. The only hindrance is to a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.

There could be more of the same on the way. With President Obama recently announcing an executive order that bans federal contractors from discriminating against gay people in the hiring process, 14 faith leaders urged Obama in a letter to exempt religious groups. These leaders, some of whom have spiritually advised Obama, cited the need to respect different opinions on sexuality and claimed that the social services they provide will suffer without an exemption.

But of course, this had nothing to do with social services. This was a blatant case of people in a position of power desperately trying to impose their beliefs on the government and the American people. Their religion dictates that homosexuality is a sin, so they asked the president to impose their beliefs and allow workplace discrimination to continue on our dime.

As I continue my education in hopes of one day being employed, I wonder what my future employer will ask of me in the name of his or her religion. What if my employers are devout Christian Scientists and I get diagnosed with cancer? Will I be forced to pay for chemotherapy because my employer genuinely believes that relying on modern medicine instead of prayer is a sin?

With the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and the pervasiveness of this new form of “religious liberty,” I can only guess whose beliefs will be dictating what parts of my life.

Alex Flitter, 25, Cherry Hill N.J., graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University in 2012 with a bachelor’s in psychology and is pursuing a master’s in psychology at Rutgers.

Freedom From Religion Foundation