In response to today’s Supreme Court decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allowed the the craft store giant and other “closely-held corporations” to be granted religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate, political and religious conservatives are framing the case as a “win” for religious liberty. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a statement celebrating the ruling and saying, “The central issue of this case was whether the federal government can coerce Americans to violate their deeply held religious beliefs.” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) echoed this sentiment in his own statement, saying, “the Court has made it clear today that the Obama administration’s assault on religious freedom in this case went too far.” Meanwhile, Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted, “#HobbyLobby wins. This is a great day for religious liberty. Government is not lord of the conscience.”
But while conservatives would have the American public believe that protecting Hobby Lobby is about protecting all religious people, the reality is that today’s ruling actually hurts people of faith. In fact, a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey conducted in early June found that a substantial majority of almost every major U.S. Christian group support the idea that publicly-held corporations and privately-owned corporations should be required to provide employees with healthcare plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost. This is likely why so many progressive Christian leaders have vocally opposed Hobby Lobby in the press, why Americans United for the Separation of Church and State submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court opposing Hobby Lobby on behalf of nearly 30 religious organizations, and why both the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the American Jewish Committee submitted their own amicus briefs decrying the corporation’s position.
And while white evangelicals were an outlier in the PRRI poll — only 40 percent of evangelical respondents supported the ACA’s contraception mandate for privately-owned corporations — a sizable cadre of conservative Christians have publicly articulated nuanced, faith-based opposition to the case in recent months, drawing attention to the fact that Hobby Lobby only speaks for a small minority of people of faith in America. David Gushee, an evangelical Christian professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, offered an extensive treatment of the case in the Associated Baptist Press in April. He examined the issue from the perspective of a Christian theologian, noting that any attempt to broaden the legal status of businesses to include religious exemptions — however well-intentioned — is inconsistent, dangerous, and unfair to other religious Americans.
“One way to look at it is this: The whole point of establishing a corporation is to create an entity separate from oneself to limit legal liability,” he writes. “Therefore, Hobby Lobby is asking for special protections/liability limits that only a corporation can get on the one hand, and special protections that only individuals, churches and religious organizations get, on the other. It seems awfully dangerous to allow corporations to have it both ways.“
In addition to fearing the social implications of a pro-Hobby Lobby ruling, other evangelical Christians take umbrage with the theological premise undergirding their case — namely, that opposing the ACA mandate is somehow an extension of a pro-life position. Richard Cizik, former Vice President for Governmental Affairs for the National Association of evangelicals, wrote in the Huffington Post this weekend that evangelicals who support Hobby Lobby “are not actually being pro-religious freedom or pro-life.” Similarly, Julia K. Stronks, evangelical Christian and political science professor at Whitworth University, teamed up with Jeffrey F. Peipert, a Jewish family-planning physician, to pen an op-ed for Roll Call earlier this month in which they argue that granting Hobby Lobby religious exemption will actually lead to more abortions. They write:
Although the owners of these for-profit corporations oppose the contraceptive requirement because of their pro-life religious beliefs, the requirement they oppose will dramatically reduce abortions. … Imagine a million fewer unintended pregnancies. Imagine healthier babies, moms and families. Imagine up to 800,000 fewer abortions. No matter your faith or political beliefs, our hunch is that we can all agree that fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions would be a blessing.
Jonathan Merritt, an evangelical Christian writer and blogger for the Religion News Service, went even further in his theological challenge to the case, arguing that conservative evangelicals shouldn’t call businesses “Christian” in the first place.
“The New Testament never—not one time—applies the ‘Christian’ label to a business or even a government,” he writes. “The tag is applied only to individuals. If the Bible is your ultimate guide, the only organization one might rightly term ‘Christian’ is a church. And this is only because a church in the New Testament is not a building or a business, but a collection of Christian individuals who have repented, believed on Christ, and are pursuing a life of holiness.”
These voices represent the majority of religious Americans who insist that today’s pro-Hobby Lobby decision isn’t about protecting “religious liberty.” Instead, it’s just a victory for one kind of religion, specifically the (usually conservative) faith of those privileged enough to own and operate massive corporations. That might be good news for the wealthy private business owners like the heads of Hobby Lobby, but for millions of religious Americans sitting in the pews — not to mention thousands working in Hobby Lobby stores — their sacred and constitutional right to religious freedom just became compromised.