Starr: Hobby Lobby case tests liberty

Former Whitewater prosecutor and current Baylor President Ken Starr says the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby’s objection to mandated contraception coverage under Obamacare tests the principle of accommodation of religious beliefs.

By Bob Allen

Baylor University President Ken Starr identified the pending case involving Hobby Lobby over mandated contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act as a crucial test for religious liberty at a recent international conference on Christianity and freedom.

Speaking in Rome at a Dec. 13-14 conference co-sponsored by Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, Starr said the Supreme Court must decide whether requiring business owners morally opposed to birth control to include contraception in their employee health plans infringes upon their free exercise of religion.

ken starrStarr said the case will test the principle of accommodation, established in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act adopted in 1993 to prevent laws that substantially burden the free exercise of religion without a compelling interest on the part of government.

Hobby Lobby founder David Green, a member of Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla., and members of his family say emergency contraception that terminates a pregnancy after fertilization occurs runs contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of human life.

“The question for the court is whether or not RFRA allows a for-profit corporation to refuse to provide what is required to be provided to their employees by federal law, solely because of the owners’ religious beliefs,” Starr said. “This will be closely watched in the months ahead — an enormous test of RFRA and, more broadly, the principle of accommodation.”

Starr traced the contribution of Baptists to the historical development of the American commitment to religious liberty and separation of church and state. He cited Roger Williams’ — founder of the first Baptist church in America, in Providence, R.I., in 1638 — who called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

He also noted the role of John Leland, a Baptist minister who preached in New England and Virginia who called for a Bill of Rights in the Constitution that would include protection of religious liberty, leading to the First Amendment guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“Freedom of religion — including freedom of conscience — had triumphed,” Starr said. “The American constitutional framework had been constructed.”

“But as the Hobby Lobby case now pending before the Supreme Court demonstrates, the contours of the constitutional provisions remain subject to vigorous debate,” he said. “The promise of religious liberty remains under challenge.”

Starr made his remarks at “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," where experts on religious liberty cautioned that discrimination and persecution against Christians is growing in many regions of the world. 

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad, warned that “extremist political Islam is growing in the Middle East," causing death and upheaval both for Christians and moderate Muslims.

Starr, a former federal judge and Whitewater prosecutor who became president of the Baptist-affiliated Texas university in 2010, recently penned an op-ed article calling for Western governments to pay more attention to the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, creating “not only a humanitarian crisis, but a looming national security problem for the West.”

“The United States in particular should mount an aggressive diplomatic initiative to convince Middle Eastern societies that they must protect their Christian communities, and ensure that they become equal citizens in both law and culture,” Starr wrote. “If those societies fail in this critical task, the results could be catastrophic — for the Christians themselves, and for the great causes of global peace, freedom and justice for all people.”

-- With reporting by Ken Camp of the Baptist Standard.