Friday, March 28, 2014

Is a supremely bad decision on deck?

     In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious belief and practice are not enough reason for individuals to act in violation of other laws in which there is a legitimate government purpose. In a case that came out of Oregon, the practice before the court was the sacramental use of peyote at a Native American church.

     Oral arguments in a similar case this week made court observers wonder if two justices who supported that decision may have had their fingers crossed. The new case involves Hobby Lobby, a privately held corporation. Its president and founder David Green is a conservative Christian. His beliefs shape company policies, from the music played in his stores to being closed on Sundays.

     In court this week, Hobby Lobby argued that the corporation should not have to provide employees with federally mandated health insurance because it covers birth control, which violates Green’s religious belief that life begins at conception.

     U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued that the government has a compelling reason to require coverage of whatever contraception a female employee chooses. Birth control promotes public health and ensures that “women have equal access to health care services.” Hobby Lobby cannot use Green’s religious beliefs to avoid the law, Verrilli argued.

     Hobby Lobby’s basic argument that religion should trump other laws was rejected in the 1990 case when Supreme Court Justices ruled in a 6-3 decision that the religious use of peyote by believers in the Native American church did not trump Oregon drug laws.

     Ironically, it was conservative Justice Antonin Scalia who wrote the majority opinion. The opinion noted that the court has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excused him from compliance with an otherwise valid law. Allowing exceptions to state laws or regulations affecting religion “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.” Scalia suggested the exemptions could include everything from vaccination requirements to paying taxes.

     This week, the justices’ questioning implied that Christian beliefs may be more deserving of protection than those of the Native American church. If so, where will the court draw a line? Is Hobby Lobby’s brand of Christianity more deserving than the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Jews—or even other Christians?

     The free exercise of religion enshrined in the First Amendment should not give any corporation the right to make medical decisions for employees any more than it gives employees the right to refuse to pay taxes. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that some things rightly belong to the state. The justices should do it again.

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