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Heavy Traffic

May 21, 2014

There seems to be quite a traffic jam at the intersection of religious liberty and civil regulations.  Perhaps the most famous example of what is passing through this intersection is the Hobby Lobby case, where the employers, who are Christian, are claiming that the Affordable Care Act mandate for giving their employees coverage for birth control in their health plan violates their (the owners) constitutionally granted freedom of religion.

Also passing through this intersection, and on the same subject of birth control, is the case of The Little Sisters of the Poor.  As a Catholic charity they have the right to opt out of the requirement as hundreds of other non-profits have done.  They contend however that needing to opt out, and to allow insurers to grant that coverage directly, violates their freedom.

Not long ago another case passed through the intersection.  In this one the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a New Mexico photography studio that had declined to offer their services to a same sex wedding.  The New Mexico court had ruled against the studio and now that ruling stands.  At least one Christian has said this declination of the appeal means “it is now a punishable offense, you can be fined for being a Christian in the United States of America. For living, behaving as a Christian, it has now become a crime in the United States of America.”

Hyperbole aside, the traffic flowing through this intersection is causing a lively debate.  At issue is this:  Can you claim a religious liberty exemption from any law or ordinance that offends your view of faith?  The issue is not new.  Back in 1982 an Amish business owner said that being forced to pay into the Social Security system violated his religious liberty.  In a rejection of this plea the court wrote:

“When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.”

If that same logic follows in the Hobby Lobby case it doesn’t bode well for that corporation.  But perhaps it will not.  Several conservative justices are widely seen as likely to be in favor of Hobby Lobby.  One of them, Antonin Scalia, said in 1990:

“Any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy. … The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind … ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as…child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

It will be interesting to see if he still feels the same way.

As a Christian, here is my concern.  When you say that your religious liberty exempts you from civil regulation, be careful what you wish for.  We all, I suspect, see some regulations as “obviously” needed.  We all, I suspect, see others as “clearly” intrusive and an over-reach of governmental policy.  The problem is that there is no agreement whatsoever on which is which.

We happily jump from side-to-side on the argument depending on our point of view.  One side rails against government control of health insurance as a violation of religious liberty and, at the same time, insists government needs to restrict the definition of marriage.  The other side happily takes the opposite side in both cases.  Do we really want endless court cases deciding which liberty needs protecting and which does not?  Do we really want to see justices jumping from side to side with us?

Our faith has survived, and is surviving around the world today, in situations far more horrifying than the ruling of these cases could ever present.  Do we really want to, as grace-filled Christians, be fighting tooth and nail over each of these issues?

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