Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Religious Freedom a Slippery Slope?

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slipperyslopeMany pro-life Catholics and evangelicals cheered when the Supreme Court ruled that small business employers don’t have to pay for abortifacients in health insurance plans. But could support for conscience rights lead down a slippery slope? “Some slopes are indeed slippery, and we do well to approach them with caution,” says theologian and philosopher Richard J. Mouw, “Which is why I take it seriously when I find myself challenged by a slippery slope argument about something that I advocate.”

My challenge in this regard has to do with the recent court decisions regarding Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College. In each case employers have resisted health insurance arrangements that violate their sincere opposition to funding abortions. I share their views, and have argued that these sincerely held convictions ought to be granted legal status—which is basically the perspective set forth recently by the majority of Supreme Court justices.

Here, however, is the slippery slope challenge in this context. Suppose a company owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to support a health plan for their employees that permitted blood transfusions? Or what if a Christian Science employer refused to provide any health insurance at all? Surely those are sincerely held convictions that have a right to be considered for protection in providing employ benefits.

The challenge is legitimate. And I don’t have an immediate response that settles the concern in any satisfactory manner. But I do take the challenge seriously. I have to—if I want the defenders of same-sex marriage also to take my challenge to them seriously.

Dr. Mouw raises an important point for consideration. I too take that challenge seriously, but I also think I have a response that can settle the issue in a satisfactory manner. Indeed, I think the worst-case outcome has likely already been settled.

Slippery slope arguments are often misunderstood and many people think they are always logically fallacious. As a general rule, if someone summarily dismisses a slippery slope claim, they are probably not the type of person who understands how arguments work. A full defense of slippery slopes against supporters of folk fallacies will have to wait for another day. For now, I’ll simply refer to and recommend one of the best analyses and explanations of the slippery slope, Eugene Volokh’s 2003 article in the Harvard Law Review, “The Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope.” In his paper Volokh says,

A slippery slope is one that covers all situations where decision A, which you might find appealing, ends up materially increasing the probability that others will bring about decision B, which you oppose.

If you are faced with the pragmatic question “Does it make sense for me to support A, given that it might lead others to support B?,” you should consider all the mechanisms through which A might lead to B, whether they are logical or psychological, judicial or legislative, gradual or sudden.

You should consider these mechanisms whether or not you think that A and B are on a continuum where B is in some sense more of A, a condition that would in any event be hard to define precisely.

In order to take a slippery slope argument seriously, support for position A needs to lead to the realistic possibility that people will support position B. Absurd scenarios can be dismissed if they are truly absurd. For example, if someone claims that if we let religious people opt out of the contraceptive mandate we’ll have new religious groups (e.g., The Church of Anti-Obamacare) springing up in order to get out of paying for healthcare services, they are not making a legitimate slippery slope argument — they’re just spouting rhetorical nonsense.

Mouw, however, presents two scenarios that are both realistic and highly possible.

Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that if we support position A (conscience rights should preclude employers from having to pay for abortifacients), it will inevitably lead to position B (Jehovah’s Witnesses will refuse to support a health plan for their employees that permitted blood transfusions and Christian Science employers will refuse to provide any health insurance at all). What would be the real-world impact if that were to occur?

Let’s start with the easiest scenario. Should we avoid supporting position A since it could justify a Christian Science employer refusing to provide any health insurance at all? No.

Small business owners are not required to provide health insurance as part of an employee’s compensation. A Christian Science employer could legitimately choose not to provide health insurance for her employees for any number of reasons. She could choose not to provide health insurance because it violates her religious beliefs or she could not provide health insurance because it cuts into her profits. Her motive for what she offers employees at her business is her business, not ours.

The lack of health care benefits, however, would be of interest to her employees. What should they do in such a scenario? Most likely, they won’t have to do anything since the labor market will already have addressed the problem. After all, employers don’t offer health insurance for free; it’s part of an employee’s overall compensation.

Imagine you are applying for a job and two different employers offer the following option:

Option A: $20,000 a year in salary with no health insurance benefits

Option B: $15,000 a year in salary with $5,000 a year in health insurance benefits

Which is the better option? From an economic standpoint, the total compensation is the same: $20,000 year. What most people don’t realize, though, is that when they are hired they are usually only given option B. They are given a lower salary because the employer has mandatory benefits (which may benefit the employer more than paying compensation in cash). Yet most people assume (wrongly) that if they are earning $20,000 a year salary without benefits, their employer could and should provide them “free” health insurance. But it doesn’t work that way — not for the employees or for the employers. Competition for employees in the labor market determines the total level of compensation offered.

If most people who work in Occupation X get health insurance as part of their compensation, then the Christian Science employer that doesn’t offer health insurance will have to offer a higher salary in order to attract employees. For some employees (including other Christian Scientists), this would be preferable to getting “paid” in health insurance that they won’t need or use.

The second scenario is very similar. The problem appears to be that the Jehovah’s Witness employer refuses to support a health plan for their employees that permitted blood transfusions. But that’s not the real problem. The problem is a matter of information and compensation.

The Jehovah’s Witness employer should inform their prospective employees that their health plan doesn’t cover transfusions. Based on that information, the employees should then demand that they receive additional pay to compensate for the lack of transfusion coverage.

Let’s say that that the typical insurance plan covers 80 percent of all health care costs and you’re the type of employee that needs a transfusion about once every 10 years. The average blood transfusion costs $1,100. Once we do the math ($1,100 divided by 10 years times 80 percent) we find that your employer needs to pay you an additional $88 a year in compensation. That is all that is required to allow you to get the benefit and for the Jehovah’s Witness employer to keep from violating their conscience.

(The main objection to this solution is that it adds an extra layer of complication to the hiring process. But that seems like a small price to pay to protect the sacred right of conscience.)

Realistically, the number of people who these situations would apply is miniscule. There are only about 20,000 Christian Scientists in the U.S. and most of them are not small-business owners. Similarly, Jehovah’s Witness only account for .7 percent of the American population, so the likelihood that a worker will be affected by their religious objections to transfusions is vanishingly small.

Even if supporting conscience rights puts us on the slipperiest of slopes, the unintended outcomes are not sufficiently nefarious and the real-world impact would be trivial. As with the contraceptive mandate, the workaround solutions are relatively easy to implement and thus do not justify violating an employer’s rights of conscience.

This may indeed be a slippery slope. But if so, it is one we should willing slide down in order to protect our first freedom.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).