Increasingly, Americans who adhere to a religion are told they cannot “force their beliefs” on others. Simply stating publicly that one doesn’t believe gays have the right to marry can cost you your career. Literally hundreds of lawsuits are now in motion against the government because employers do not want to be forced to violate their religious beliefs by paying for employees’ contraception and/or abortions.
Lawmakers from both parties and across the political spectrum found common ground and passed, by a near-unanimous vote, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which firmly commits the federal government to protecting and promoting our “inalienable right” to freely exercise religion. As President Clinton remarked when he signed the legislation into law, “the power of God is such that even in the legislative process, miracles can happen.”
Yet, the Supreme Court this week hears two cases involving business owners who say they are being asked to violate their religious beliefs by the very government that gave us the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Like millions of religious believers and groups, these challengers reject the idea that religious faith and religious freedom are simply about what we believe and how we pray, and not also about how we live, act and work. At the heart of these two cases is the straightforward argument that federal law does not require us to “check our faith at the door” when we pursue vocations in business and commerce.
Garnett points out that one of the businesses here, Hobby Lobby, chooses to close all its stores on Sundays, so that its employees may have the day to worship and spend with their families. They have the right to do that. The owners of Hobby Lobby are of course free to attend church and openly express their faith. So what’s the real issue?
The issue is not whether groups, associations and corporations have religious freedom rights under federal law. Of course they do. After all, religious hospitals, schools, social service agencies and churches are not “individuals,” but it would be bizarre to say that they don’t exercise religion.
And the question should not be whether legal protections for religious liberty stop at the sanctuary door or evaporate when a person is trying to make a living or a business is aiming to make a profit. At a time when we talk a lot about corporate responsibility and worry about the feeble influence of ethics and values on Wall Street decision-making, it would be strange if the law were to welcome sermonizing from Starbucks on the government shutdown but tell the Greens and Hobby Lobby to focus strictly on the bottom line.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act reaffirmed an idea that is deeply rooted in America’s history and traditions — namely, that politics and policy should respect and, whenever possible, make room for religious commitments and conscientious objections. True, religious liberty is not absolute, and, in a pluralistic society like ours, not all requests for exemptions and accommodations can, or should, be granted. Some religious liberty lawsuits will, and should, fail, but not simply because they involve what happens at work on Monday and not what happens in services on the Sabbath.
No, Garnett argues, we do not need to check our faith when we walk into work in the morning, when we unlock the front door to our small business to begin the day’s work, when we compensate employees with health care coverage. As Americans, our “first freedom” is and must be protected. James Madison:
[T]he equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us…