National Voices

Saturday, Dec 07 2013 11:02 PM

Red America, Blue America: Religious freedom or health care access?

The Supreme Court recently said it would accept a case in which employers -- including craft-store chain Hobby Lobby -- challenge Obamacare's mandate they provide contraceptive coverage as part of the health insurance package they provide their workers.

The employers say the requirement violates their religious beliefs against birth control; the Obama administration -- which already exempted churches and church-based charities from the requirement -- isn't budging, and allies say that the rule must stand to preserve women's access to health care.

Which side is right? Is there middle ground? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate the issue.

JOEL MATHIS: Religious freedom is an important value, one that helped create this country. But it is not the only value, and (especially in this case) it must be weighed against other considerations.

Three reasons Hobby Lobby and its allies should lose in the court.

* Businesses cannot go to heaven. We tend to lose sight of this fact -- particularly in the post-Citizens United era -- but corporations are not people. Individuals within a corporation can worship and believe as they wish, and they wrestle with cosmic notions of eternity, but Hobby Lobby itself cannot: It possesses no soul nor conscience nor consciousness. A corporation's "freedom of religion" is thus about as useful as its "freedom to swim." When Hobby Lobby can enter a confessional, let's talk. Until then, we should not treat a business as though it has substantially the same rights as actual people.

* Women, on the other hand, are real citizens who deserve to control their own health decisions. Like it or not, we as a society have decided that health insurance will be provided primarily by and through employers; until that changes, that means they must conform to certain expectations in providing that insurance. Individual women shouldn't have to sacrifice coverage because, say, an accountant at the home office in Oklahoma City heard differently from his pastor.

* A Hobby Lobby victory edges toward giving churches a de facto veto over secular policy decisions. It is not difficult to imagine, going forward, that many churches and church members would claim a belief-based reason they shouldn't be required to comply with certain laws. Which would leave officials with a choice of running policies past church leaders before passing them, or carving out exemptions for every halfway controversial measure.

Civil society will not much like one set of rules for secular people and one set for religious folks; it probably would not survive a landscape of a thousand different types of government for a thousand different religious organizations. The Obamacare mandate should stand.

BEN BOYCHUK: The Hobby Lobby case isn't about carving out exceptions for religious people from the odious and ill-conceived Obamacare law, or extending special religious protections to businesses. It's about preserving fundamental, constitutional freedoms -- something that liberals once had no qualms about defending.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to undermine religious liberty even as it claims to uphold the mushy and muddled ideal of "freedom to worship." In practice, such a "freedom" would mean confining one's religious beliefs to the church on Sunday and with little room to live a religious or moral life in the public sphere beyond what the government permits.

Fact is, the Supreme Court has taken a dim view of this administration's fast and loose interpretation of the First Amendment's protection of individuals' free religious exercise. For example, the justices last year unanimously rejected the federal government's claim that the First Amendment did not protect a church's right to choose its own ministers.

"The Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own." It shouldn't be too difficult to extend that logic to Obamacare's employer health mandates.

True, women are equal citizens who deserve to control their own health decisions. But Hobby Lobby already provided birth control coverage for its workers. At issue is whether Hobby Lobby's owners should be compelled to pay for workers' abortions -- a deeply divisive and moral question for most Americans. Hobby Lobby should be free to decide the question as its owners see fit.

Bottom line: the Hobby Lobby case isn't about ensuring "access" to health care, or preventing some far-fetched sectarian encroachment on secular policy decisions. It is about government compulsion, pure and simple. The First Amendment is supposed to be a bulwark against government encroachment on the free exercise of religion. For that reason alone, Hobby Lobby should prevail and the Obama administration should lose.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org ) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is a contributing editor to Philadelphia Magazine. They wrote this for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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