The Slippery Slope of “Religious” Freedom versus Human Rights

News of the result of the Burnwell v Hobby Lobby Stores case reached my ears at the worst possible moment, surrounded by staunch Republicans in the great state of South Carolina. I spent the week at home deflecting backhanded comments about those damn liberals and their slow and steady destruction of the America we know and love. With the words “THANKS OBAMA” still ringing in my ears, I find it impossible to voice my thoughts on the Hobby Lobby ruling without in some way addressing the environment I have only recently vacated.

 By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in Burnwell v Hobby Lobby Stores that, in reference to the stipulation within the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraception, closely held for-profit corporations with religious objections cannot be required to uphold the mandate. Religious groups described it as a small part of a larger war on religious freedom. Supporters of the ACA argued that its elimination would continue the various forms of selective equality that still plague a country whose central premise is that all people are created equal, allowing corporations to impede not only women’s reproductive rights, but also to challenge other civil rights statutes with the same vigor. 

 A recent article in the New York Times by Paul Horwitz astutely points out that “this was a statutory case, not a case decided under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the statute which Horwitz explores in his article, asserts that “the government ‘shall not substantially burden’ the exercise of religion without satisfying a demanding legal test.”

I do not pretend to be an expert on the legal precedence upon which the Supreme Court ruling is based, however I do take issue with the way that religion functions in this country, often invoked as an attack or tactic of manipulation rather than the moral compass it is supposed to represent. Horwitz asserts that the RFRA was created in 1993 in response to the ability of the government throughout history to unfairly burden the exercise of religious freedom, and is quick to assert that it has been championed by Democrats since its formation (including Bill Clinton).

However, I would ask Horwitz, and those who believe it right to champion religious preference over basic human rights, what exactly is being defended by this statute? And further, what behavior does protecting your religious rights entitle you to in terms of how you relate to others?

When I think about the ways that debates concerning abortion, contraception, marriage equality, etc…are framed, it seems to me that these arguments, on both sides, have almost nothing to do with religious doctrine. In the context of these debates, those who claim to follow Christ, a historical figure who preached love for the unlovable, seek to claim exemption from loving those they personally deem unworthy of love or respect. Certainly, when Christ said to love your neighbor he meant everyone, not just those with which you agree, or whose lifestyle affirms your own. Surely love does not mean coercing others to conform to your own beliefs, or enacting your prejudices upon them and limiting their freedoms. After all, none of these behaviors parallel the life of Christ, who instead of condemning those who were different argued that “He who is without sin cast the first stone”. Does not basic religious doctrine involve equality, justice, and free will for those God supposedly created? To me, religious freedom represents an opportunity to echo the behavior of Christ (or whoever be your deity) in the world today. I would argue that robbing a person of the right to comprehensive health care based in some small religion-based prejudice, and privileging your perspective over theirs to the detriment of their way of life, is not an effective utilization of one’s religious freedom.

Often religion is trotted out as a convenient weapon of choice in this country, used as a means of furthering one’s own interests or supporting one’s own beliefs, no matter how antiquated they may be. It seems rather obvious that a more logical explanation for the resistance to the mandate of the ACA is sourced in the concept of sacrificing a portion of one’s own paycheck for the sake of these health care provisions. However, here the Biblical “Thou Shall Not” becomes glaringly selective, as Hobby Lobby refuses to provide access to contraception, but still covers Viagra and penile implants in its approved health care benefits. Once again, religion becomes a straw-man to conceal one’s own gender-based prejudices and class-based selfishness. It seems worthy of note that in a parallel case, when CVS refused to sell tobacco products despite their economic bottom line, the whole world applauded; when Hobby Lobby refused BASIC health care coverage to female employees, a media apocalypse ensued. One is obviously a choice to benefit the consumer, and the other is obviously a choice to benefit the big business executive.

Throughout debates like these, it is important to remember that the various freedoms we champion so forcefully in this country are universally applicable, available to those with which our opinions align, and those who believe the opposite. Freedom of religion allows both the executives at Hobby Lobby and me the same right to choose whether we adhere to religious doctrine. Observance of my religious freedom should not come at the cost of another’s beliefs, for that would undermine the very basis of this country in which we live, and the very basis of the God in question in this debate. Simply because resources are provided does not mean that the executives at Hobby Lobby must take advantage of them; to require such an action would be an impingement upon personal freedom. However, the act of removing access to resources entirely, so that those whose religious perspectives are not violated by the use of contraception cannot afford them, privileges one group’s perspectives over another, and impinges on personal freedom by preventing access to necessary resources.

It seems that the real problem here is not religion or contraception themselves, but rather (and once again) an inability to respect an individual’s right to choose what his/her life will look like, which is in many ways  similar to the rights that the RFRA was created to defend all those years ago. It is on the precipice of this slippery slope that America resides currently resides, for privileging religious rights over human rights allows people not only to gain exemption from the very core values of their supposed religious practice, but also creates the space for other human rights to face similar violation.
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