By Eileen Campbell-Reed
Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a decision on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case that allows family businesses as “closely held corporations” to deny coverage for the reproductive health of their employees. As a Baptist minister and practical theologian, I found myself objecting to the ruling for at least three reasons.
First, the decision means the state fails to protect human rights sufficiently. Second, from a theological perspective the ruling conflates for-profit businesses with religious bodies. And finally, from a Baptist perspective the decision opens the door to conferring religious status on U.S. corporations, which blunders justice and threatens religious liberty.
On human rights grounds
Birth control is a woman’s choice, and no woman should be coerced by the state or her employer over decisions about her body, her health or her future. She may of course join or affiliate with any community — religious or otherwise — that influences her to adopt particular values regarding reproductive health. Yet without the freedom to choose in these matters, women cannot act on their conscience to use or not use birth control of any kind. Within this debate, I think the state should protect human rights, allowing individuals to choose their care for reproductive health and protecting access to these rights whenever possible.
When religious rights come into conflict with human rights, governments have tough choices to make. In the case of churches and other religious nonprofits, the state ruled that preventative reproductive health care (birth control) must still be available from insurance companies, but the financial burden for that care shifted to individual employees. Birth control coverage does not have to be offered directly by churches, synagogues, etc. Neither do they have to pay for it. Nevertheless, many religious agencies do offer and pay for birth control.
So the question in the Hobby Lobby case became whether a for-profit business should be able to refuse to provide the contraceptive health care and/or shift the burden of pay to employees. In this contest between human rights and religious rights, the state has unfortunately decided on the side of religious rights for a corporation, exempting it from the requirements imposed on other businesses. They could have chosen to restrict the religious rights of a corporation and make way for governmental interest of providing adequate health care to more citizens, but the court did not make that choice.
On theological grounds
Corporations are not religious bodies. Hobby Lobby is a business not a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Certainly some religious bodies look like and are run like corporations. For instance megachurches often sustain policies, staff, budgets and even investments that make them appear to be corporations. However, businesses like Hobby Lobby are not primarily gathered for the sake of worship, human service or communal support, as religious bodies are. They are gathered for making a profit. They may run by the principles of the scriptures (and we could ask which ones?) or with Jesus or Muhammed or Yahweh as their “CEO.” Yet they are still businesses and should be legislated accordingly.
To be honest, I hold some misgivings about the state imposing health care laws on businesses, but those misgivings are outweighed by the need for responsible, shared care of the bodies and health of society’s members with the least coercion and greatest choice possible. I think the government has a compelling interest in intervening in the health care world because too much gatekeeping and systemic oppression prevents access to abundant resources for the common good.
If the government is going to intervene in businesses to make health care available to more Americans, then all businesses should be subject to the same interventions. There are surely exceptions that cause undue burdens to some small businesses, but the case of Hobby Lobby is not one of them. Just because this one business wants to exercise its theological convictions over women’s bodies and reproductive health does not mean the Supreme Court should grant them special exception to do so.
On Baptist grounds
Religious liberty is best understood as both the free exercise of religion and the avoidance of government establishment of religion. Baptists through history have defended religious liberty not only for themselves, but for all religious groups. While some conservative Christians and Baptists may see the Hobby Lobby case as a “win” for religious liberty, I see it only as a win for their brand of conservative religion.
I would prefer that the Supreme Court had ruled against Hobby Lobby and allowed their employees to have the freedom to follow their personal religious convictions, making choices regarding the use of birth control without additional personal or financial burden.
Potentially this ruling takes two slides down the slippery slope of disregarding the First Amendment protections for religious liberty. First, it legislates corporations as religious bodies, troublesome as already noted. Further, it risks establishing for-profit corporations as religions by 1) giving them a financial advantage over competitors (the cost of reproductive health is shifted to individual women) and 2) offering them protection from the state as religious bodies. This amounts to a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. And although it is deeply unfortunate that a consumer driven culture is increasingly normative in the U.S., granting businesses and corporations official religious status — on par with churches, synagogues and mosques — is worse than unfortunate. It is a blunder of justice.