Hobby Lobby and the fight to protect religious freedom

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in cases involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods Specialties Corporation. Both companies are owned by Christian families who object to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) requirement that for-profit corporations provide insurance coverage for abortifacient forms of contraception, which violate the religious principles of the owners.

I could address any number of fascinating topics connected to this case, but perhaps the most troubling one, in the long (or short?) run, is the fact that the implementation of the ACA is taking us down the road toward potential wide-scale civil disobedience. In this country, a substantial percentage of the population believes abortion (including abortifacient forms of contraception) is a violation of an objective moral order that incorporates as one of its uncompromising precepts the natural right of innocent human beings not to be deliberately killed. Some ACA mandates constitute direct support for illicit actions, and thus are regarded by many people as unjust regulations.

For millennia, political philosophers have wrestled with the question of what recourse citizens have when faced with unjust laws. Laws may be unjust because they violate the temporal good of a polity, but they can also be unjust when they violate divine law. For those of certain religious persuasions, the Hobby Lobby case, and cases similar to it, involve violations of divine law, and that’s why the issues of birth control and government-mandated health insurance intersect with the free exercise of religion.

Some argue, of course, that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods are companies, not people. But people don’t lose their sacred rights of conscience just because they incorporate, or because they hire hundreds of people to work for them. Participation in abortion-related activities constitutes formal cooperation in evil.

There is remarkable consensus across religious and philosophical lines when it comes to how religious citizens should respond to violations of divine law. From the Jewish scriptures we see that the Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to kill male babies, King Saul’s troops disobeyed his order to massacre the priests at Nob and the three Hebrew captives disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar’s order to worship his statue. From the Christian New Testament we see that Jesus Christ went to the cross for the kingdom of God, and when the early apostles were told not to proclaim the Gospel they famously proclaimed that they “must obey God rather than men.”

From Greek tragedy, Antigone disobeyed Creon’s edict to leave her brother unburied, adhering to the higher law of Zeus at the expense of her life. From Greek philosophy, Socrates refused to live quietly and was willing to die rather than disobey his god. From the Scholastic era, Thomas Aquinas argued that when human law commanded someone to act contrary to divine law, the only possible response was disobedience. Martin Luther and John Calvin concurred with Aquinas on this question, and Thomas Becket and Thomas More died for that principle.

It’s worth pointing out that this issue of moral and religious conscience was precisely what some opponents of the ACA warned about. In fact, the ONLY reason the ACA got to President Obama’s desk for signature was because several antiabortion Democrats in Congress received assurances from their colleagues that Americans would not be forced to violate their consciences by participating in morally objectionable procedures. Apparently trust has a very short half-life.

We are swiftly moving toward a scenario in which the only recourse for persons of good conscience may be noncompliance with the law. Some fundamental principles allow no other options. In this case, it seems that religious liberty is to be sacrificed on the altar of sexual freedom.

The ironic thing is that the First Amendment was designed to protect us from the central government meddling in religious affairs ““ and yet, here we have a central government doing precisely that. This entire fracas is the result of an over-reaching and grossly bloated law. On the one hand the administration seems unwilling to grant any sensible exemptions, while on the other hand it passes out exemptions like candy when it suits its political needs.

Jesus famously taught that we are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s ““ a rejection of the notion that we should give the things that are God’s to Caesar. To switch to another religious symbol, this whole controversy testifies to the danger posed by a state that has become an engorged beast, preventing anyone from buying or selling unless they bow to its authority.

David Crockett is a political science professor.