Fifth place: Graduate/mature student essay contest by Benjamin van Loon

Hobby Lobby ruling is vat of worms

By Benjamin van Loon
FFRF awarded Benjamin $500 for his essay.

The First Amendment recognizes freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. The amendment opens with the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses that state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson summed up the clauses’ implication in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, that they erect “a wall of separation between Church & State.” On paper, the separation seems like it should work, but two centuries later, the 1791 amendment is still contentious.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby originated in 2010 in reaction to the Affordable Care Act and its redefinition of employer-based health plans. Under the ACA, the Health Resources and Services Administration determined that FDA-approved contraceptives should be included in these health plans.

Big-box craft chain Hobby Lobby — owned by founder, billionaire and evangelical Christian David Green and his family — has 28,000 employees and objected to coverage for emergency and other contraception which the company has, in the tradition of corporate myopia, erroneously declared to be abortifacients.

This is less like a can and more like a vat of worms. How can a corporation have religious beliefs? Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott addressed the issue in their 2003 documentary “The Corporation,” which investigates corporate personhood through a DSM-IV lens. The movie concludes that corporations are largely psychopathic (socially inept, lacking empathy, deceitful, etc.).

This is not revelatory but it is provocative. We’re led to ask how corporations achieved their personhood. They can merge, acquiesce and sue, but can they go to church? Hobby Lobby cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, suggesting that the government has substantially burdened the company’s exercise of religion. The “win” in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is a liberating benefit to corporations, which can leverage “religious” rationale for commercial gain and a detriment to the real persons affected by corporate decisions.

We must also consider how the case fallaciously conflates religious conviction with ethical opinion. Hobby Lobby’s argument reflects the Christian position about conception and contraceptives in general, where the logic is hermeneutically weak and the reasoning duplicitous.

If Burwell v. Hobby Lobby were truly about religious freedom, the $2.28 billion company would swallow the $100 a month tax for failing to meet HRSA requirements and we’d hear no more of it. But instead, federal notions of religious liberty get dragged into the muck as Jefferson’s wall gets ever more porous.

Finally, in typical psychopathological fashion, Hobby Lobby fails to recognize that what it does in pursuit of its religious liberty doubles as a religious (ethical and ideological) imposition, beginning with its 28,000 employees and extending to the rest of the conscious public.

If Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, it should recognize that religion ends where it begins: in the head, the only place one can be truly free.

Benjamin van Loon, 29, Chicago, is pursuing a master’s in communication and media at Northeastern Illinois University after graduating magna cum laude from North Park University with degrees in both philosophy and English.

Freedom From Religion Foundation