Ready for the next court fight over Obamacare? Get to know Hobby Lobby, the chain of stores fighting the Affordable Care Act's requirement that the health insurance employers offer their employees cover contraception, and the next Christian martyr to the unholy scourge of health coverage for employees. Hobby Lobby's owners are conservative Christians, and though their company isn't a church, they'd like to choose which laws they approve of and which they don't, and follow only the laws they like. And a federal appeals court just ruled that not only can their suit go forward, but they're likely to win. Because apparently, "This law violates my religious beliefs" is now a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The decision is simply mind-blowing, essentially finding that private business are just like religious institutions, and therefore they can decide which laws they have to obey:
"Hobby Lobby and Mardel have drawn a line at providing coverage for drugs or devices they consider to induce abortions, and it is not for us to question whether the line is reasonable," the judges wrote. "The question here is not whether the reasonable observer would consider the plaintiffs complicit in an immoral act, but rather how the plaintiffs themselves measure their degree of complicity."
Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., Mardel Inc. and their owners, the Green family, argue for-profit businesses — not just religious groups — should be allowed to seek an exception if the law violates their religious beliefs. The owners approve of most forms of artificial birth control, but not those that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg — such as an IUD or the morning-after pill.
Hobby Lobby is the largest and best-known of more than 30 businesses in several states that have challenged the contraception mandate. A number of Catholic-affiliated institutions have filed separate lawsuits, and the court suggested faith-based organizations can follow for-profit objectives in the secular world.
"A religious individual may enter the for-profit realm intending to demonstrate to the marketplace that a corporation can succeed financially while adhering to religious values. As a court, we do not see how we can distinguish this form of evangelism from any other," they wrote.
I'm not a lawyer, so maybe there's something I'm missing here, but my reaction upon reading this was, "Holy crap!" It's not for the court to question whether Hobby Lobby's interpretation of what laws it would rather follow is correct? Seriously? And they don't see how they can distinguish selling pipe cleaners and finger paint from any other form of evangelism?
Before we get to the core question here, it's just incredible that one of the reasons the court found in favor of Hobby Lobby was that the company didn't want to pay for insurance that would pay for "drugs and devices that the plaintiffs believe to be abortifacients." But what they believe is utterly irrelevant. One of the methods they object to is Plan B, the morning-after pill. But Plan B isn't an abortifacient. The plaintiffs can choose to "believe" that it is if they want, but they're asking that the state accept their belief as if it were true just because they believe it, and thereby exempt them from obeying the law. In effect that creates a justification for anyone who wants to ignore the law to create their own factual universe, then use that invented universe to say they're exempt from the laws everyone else has to follow. If you get caught by a speed camera going 50 in a 35 zone, you can't say, "Your honor, I believe that all speed cameras automatically register cars as going 15 miles per hour over their actual speeds. Therefore, I was going 35, and I am exempt from this fine."
This is not the last challenge we're going to see to this part of the ACA; there are going to be many other companies coming forward to say, "We're Christian, so therefore the law doesn't apply to us." But just think for a moment about the principle they're using to justify that position. There isn't any question about the constitutionality of this provision of the ACA. It was passed by Congress and signed by the President. It's the law of the land. But these private companies are saying that they have the right to choose which laws they obey, simply by saying "It's my religion."
To put this in context, the law doesn't distinguish between "real" religions and fake religions, and properly so. One of the reasons we have the religious freedom we do in America is that the founders didn't want to set up a system like the one that existed in Europe, where there was a single state religion and none others had protection. So if you want to get married by a clergyman from the Church of Holy Toenail, you might have to fill out some extra paperwork, but you'll be able to do it.
And that means that if we apply this rationale more broadly, anyone, whatever religion they claim to believe in, should be able to declare themselves exempt from any law they don't like. And what's more, they don't even need any evidence from their religious tradition or texts to justify it. You know what the Bible says about contraception? Absolutely nothing. Not a word. But along the way, some Christians decided that God disapproves of contraception, even though most Christians use it. So now anyone can declare that their religion, i.e. their personal interpretation of their religion, has a greater legal force than actual laws.
I have to pay taxes? Sorry, I'm a Hindu, so I think taxes are an abomination unto the Lord. Sure, there's no justification for that position in any Hindu text, but the Bible says nothing about contraception either, and Christians are getting an exemption for that, so I decided that Hinduism forbids tax paying. You caught me breaking into my neighbor's garage and stealing his nice new 18-volt cordless drill? Well, I'm a Buddhist, and I believe that private property is an impediment to enlightenment, so what's his is mine. The zoning laws in my neighborhood forbid retail establishments? Sorry, I'm a member of the Church of the Homemade Energy Bar, which mandates that all adherents sell energy bars out of their homes, so the zoning rules don't apply to me.
I only skimmed the decision in this case, so maybe there's something there I missed that makes this seem less appalling. But religious organizations get all kinds of special treatment from the government as things stand today, and what the plaintiffs in this case (along with their supporters) seem to be arguing is that religious people ought to enjoy a special privileged status that puts them above the law.