Freethought Today · November 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Fifth Place Graduate/‘Older’ Student Essay: The expansion of religious influence in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case by Michael Crawford

FFRF awarded Michael $500 for his essay.

By Michael Crawford

In 2014, The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, a landmark decision that exempted closely-held businesses from adhering to laws that are contrary to the owner's religious beliefs.

While the issue at hand involved coverage for contraceptives in the insurance plan offered by Hobby Lobby under the Affordable Care Act, this decision has far-reaching implications that pose a threat to individuals, the separation of church and state, and equal justice under the law. Although it applies only to "closely-held businesses," such businesses constitute 90 percent of United States corporations and employ 52 percent of the workforce. The breadth of this decision cannot be overstated.

Individuals freedoms are curtailed by this case. The vast majority of U.S. corporations, some employing as many as 100,000 people, now have legal grounds for imposing the owner's religious beliefs on his or her workers. This will inevitably coerce workers to adhere to a religious viewpoint that they may not agree with.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the company removed a service that would otherwise have been given with the purchase of the employer-provided insurance plan. One may argue that contraceptives are readily obtainable elsewhere; however, those faced with financial difficulty will find the cost prohibitive. The religious convictions of the business owner should not affect the choices that the employees make in their private lives.

The most problematic aspect of this case is its potential for expansion. Considering that more than 70 percent of the nation was Christian (as of 2014), it comes as no surprise that this ruling in favor of the evangelical Christian Hobby Lobby owners was applauded by many. This religious exemption applies to all religions, however. Consider a hypothetical case where a Muslim-owned business requires female employees to wear a hijab to work. The owners feel that they would be complicit in the alleged immorality of western culture if they allowed their workers to wear what they please. Christians would balk at this, condemning it without hesitation; however, the Hobby Lobby decision has set a precedent that may permit this if applied consistently. Religious people must realize that they do not have the authority to control the private lives of others, especially when those choices do not have an adverse effect on anyone else.

The decision also undermines separation between church and state. In the Hobby Lobby case, the government acknowledged and accommodated a specific religious belief. While the government must regard all religions as equal, this may not happen in practice. It is more likely for Christian beliefs to be favored over those of underrepresented religious groups, such as Muslims or Jews.

A further issue arises from the potential for government to be swayed by religious entities. Since the vast majority of corporations can now become exempt from a law that they do not agree with, the government may be forced to bend over backwards to accommodate them. This damages the integrity of the law in question, which no longer applies universally. Religion has been given too much influence, and the government cannot be expected to cater to the innumerable religious beliefs that people hold.

Equal justice under the law comes under attack when the government gives religion privileged standing. In the Hobby Lobby case, the court granted the owner a religious exemption. It is important to consider what would have happened if this same belief that condemns contraception was not based on religion. If an atheist business owner attempted to strip his employees of coverage for contraceptives, he would immediately be refused. Similarly, if a nonreligious person was found in possession of peyote, an illicit drug consumed in some Native American religions, he would be convicted. Merely on the merit of being religious, people may be exempt from following certain laws. This clearly demonstrates favoritism toward religious beliefs over secular ones and a lack of equal standing under the law.

The Hobby Lobby case brings with it troubling implications for the influence of religion in American society. Through acknowledging the legitimacy of Hobby Lobby's actions, the court has reaffirmed the Religious Right's redefinition of religious liberty as a principle that permits them to impose their religious beliefs on others.

Michael, 22, is from Loganville, Ga., and attends Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance, seeking a master's degree in music composition. He graduated from Emory University, majoring in music. Michael was concertmaster of the Emory University Symphony Orchestra as a senior and was the winner of the 2015-16 Concerto and Aria Competition at the Barber Violin Concerto. He is a two-time recipient of the Department of Music's competitive Blumenthal Award, and was recipient of the prestigious Louis B. Sudler Prize in the Arts.

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