Religious liberty is a central pillar of American democracy. But what exactly does this broad and oft-cited principle mean in the context of our modern society? Recently, debates over this very question have found their way into mainstream political discussions, particularly in the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to require employer health plans to cover birth control for women with no co-pay. Conservatives tend to believe that an individual employer’s religious conscious deserves greater consideration than the health and welfare of their female employees, but in reality, this view is an unfortunate misreading of religious liberty.
The First Amendment separates church and state and undeniably articulates that individuals have some ability to exercise their religious beliefs without state interference. But any breathing person would also concede that this principle has clear limits. Some religious group wishing to engage in human sacrifice would incur state interference because committing murder is clearly in violation of state and federal law—and clearly harmful to society. By the same measure, a federal law mandating that all women use birth control would be an unnecessarily invasive statute that denies individuals their religious liberty without clear benefits to society. Thus, it’s our job to find a line between respecting individual conscious and protecting the liberty and welfare of the greater society.
In the 1960s, some business owners thought their religious liberty afforded them the right to discriminate against black customers; and nowadays, some religious business owners want to discriminate against law-abiding same-sex couples for the same reason. Let’s be clear: you have the right to exercise your religion freely when making personal decisions or when determining what goes on in your own household. But as soon as you found the only hospital in a fifty-mile radius, set up a restaurant in the middle of a bustling city, or takeover a company employing thousands of individuals with different religious preferences, you are obliged to follow the law just like everybody else.
Allowing individuals to escape certain laws on religious grounds, although necessary in some respects, is quite the slippery slope. Justice Antonin Scalia described this point beautifully in the Supreme Court’s Employment Division v. Smith (1990) decision:
[Requiring a religious exemption] would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. (Justice Scalia)
Let’s return now to the birth control mandate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) prevents the federal government from passing laws that “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” (emphasis added) unless the law advances a compelling societal interest in the least restrictive way possible. When faced with a case arising from the Obama administration’s birth control rule, federal Judge Carol Jackson, a George H. W. Bush appointee, wouldn’t even discuss whether the law advances a compelling societal interest because the mandate obviously does not represent a “substantial burden” to religious employers.
[The 1993 law] does not protect against the slight burden on religious exercise that arises when one’s money circuitously flows to support the conduct of other free-exercise-wielding individuals who hold religious beliefs that differ from one’s own. (Judge Jackson)
Opposition to the recent birth control law is nothing less than religious liberty run amuck. The separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion need to be preserved—but with clear limitations. So the next time your crazy conservative uncle tries to tell you that it’s his First Amendment privilege to debase the fundamental rights of others, politely remind him that that’s not really what religious liberty is all about.
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