The recent case before the United States Supreme Court involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties is an instructive case study in religious freedom in a pluralistic society. The Christian owners of both corporations sued the government over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act because they claimed that it violated their religious freedom.
The case is especially instructive because of the innate tensions involved. On one hand, polls indicate that 89% of all Americans agree that the use of birth control is morally acceptable. On the other hand, the United States also has a long tradition of protecting the freedom of religious minorities. Where is the line between providing a healthcare service supported by the vast majority of Americans and the claim that this violates one’s religious conscience?
Does it actually violate one’s conscience if one isn’t required to directly use or provide the service oneself but instead to provide healthcare insurance that includes it for those who want it? We can quibble over how fine a line we should put on it. Other related considerations are more important.
As Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institute wrote, “If you find you religion burdened by something so indirect then when does it end? If religious folks try to withdraw too much from the practices of ordinary society—if they push too hard for the right not to participate—it will backfire. It sends a bad message about their inclusivity and their willingness to engage with society.”
It feeds the general perception that religious people are intolerant and that their scruples trump the needs and desires of ordinary people. After the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, there was lots of public comment comparing the five conservative male justices who ruled in favor with the three female justices who ruled against it. The clear implication was that these traditional men just don’t get it. One young woman demonstrating against the ruling was carrying a sign that read, “Keep your theology off my biology.”
As religious people, is this the perception we want others to have of us? What will it take to instead be known for our tolerance and compassion—for being more like Jesus? We’re sorely mistaken if we imagine that God’s calling us to be pure and separate. We’re instead called to roll up our sleeves and to get engaged up to our elbows with all who seek the common good.