This week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby and Calistoga Wood. The ruling has set off a wave of social media confusion. So here’s a more comprehensive look.
First the basics. Hobby Lobby and Calistoga Wood objected to four contraceptives: two emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella and two kinds of IUDs. The owners of Hobby Lobby and Calistoga Wood find these methods to be abortifacients, in their faith based view they do not want to financially enable these methods which they view as virtually equal to abortion. To put it more clearly, to the owners of Hobby Lobby and Calistoga Wood paying for these items would be the equivalent of enabling the death of babies.
At issue is the interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 and a subsequent law. The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act expanded the definition of religious freedom:
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.
In other words the government cannot burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the law was not specifically targeted at a particular faith or religious belief.
Until this week, the Supreme Court had never definitively ruled on how RFRA applied to religious freedom. The court had also never ruled about the religious freedoms of corporations. So the case was groundbreaking on many levels.
This is not an exhaustive post, but I want to look at three dimensions of the case: what constitutes a Christian business, whether or not corporations are people, and how to view this case within a historical context.
A Christian Business
Is Hobby Lobby a Christian business? Here’s an interesting interview with Mart Green which I think will help you get a sense of how they view their life and work. David Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby, is the son of an Assemblies of God preacher. David was the only child not to go into full time ministry. Listen to the full interview to get a better sense of the family and how they view themselves. They are very much Assemblies of God Christians in their beliefs and practice.
Jonathan Merrit has a post that articulated what many probably feel at some gut level. How can a craft and hobbies store claim a Christian mandate or identity? It’s an interesting question and an important one to consider.
Certainly the Green family believes that they are running a Christian business in that they promote evangelism, are closed on the Sabbath, are pro-life in their beliefs, and are generous with their financial contributions. They also promote the values of integrity and empowerment within their business context.
I think it’s worth stating that God will hold us to high standards if we choose to call our business Christian. Some evangelicals will call a business they own a full time Christian ministry. What they typically mean is that there is a specific focus on evangelism and reaching others with the good news of Jesus Christ or that they are generous in their contributions, what is often missing is any mention or serious reflection on Christian practice in the entire life cycle of the business.
What’s important to remember is that in God’s eyes these aren’t either/or propositions. The Lord will ask us if our work contributed to the suffering of the vulnerable overseas, he will ask how we handled engaging with the unborn, he may ask if we thought about how our products were sourced in terms of their impact on God’s creation, he will ask how we tried to love our neighbors who weren’t Christian but were employed in our business. Certainly our personal generosity and Sabbath practices will also come into play, but as important will be questions on whether we earned wrongful gain or defrauded our neighbor in the life cycle of our business. God’s standards will be much higher than our legal or cultural norms. Not to mention the Lord will ask about all those hidden ways and questions that he has for each of us. In short, working in God’s name is not something to be taken lightly.
I think the question on money making and how Christians have handled money and fame in their ministries and lives has done a lot to cloud the role of money as a motivating factor in calling something Christian. Money is not morally neutral when it comes to whom you ultimately serve. So I think this sentiment and experience does a lot to lessen the enthusiasm for businesses claiming a Christian identity.
As far as the Green family, I cannot be a final arbitrator of what they claim to be. I can only point people to all the ways God may hold us to account for what we say, and ask that each of us be sober minded in our judgments and practices. After all God is other and He is holy and has called us to seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness. This is true for the Greens as any other Christian family.
Corporations and People
Are corporations people? It seems laughable, but under U.S. law increasingly the answer is yes. To some extent businesses in the U.S. have always been treated in some way like people for the purposes of entering into contracts and engaging with other businesses. You might ask why? The simple answer is that there was not the need to create another type of category or rights for businesses. The questions asked in the 19th century were not the same ones being asked today. The initial thinking around being held accountable like any person seems good and fair. Like people corporations can be held liable for illegal actions and even dumping.
The pro-life movement has often taken issue with the idea that corporations are people while the unborn are not. So it’s a bit of a surprise to see a reversal that doesn’t articulate that we view the unborn as people too.
Under current interpretations of the law, U.S. corporations are people in some instances but not in others. The most notable case in the last few years was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) which ruled that corporations are people when it comes to their ability to make their views known in the political process. The case built on Buckley v. Valeo (1976) which ruled that free speech includes money.
So association of peoples operating as corporations are being recognized more and more as people under U.S. law. This is morally problematic because it consolidates the identity of a business into the hands of a few decision makers. Isn’t there a way to balance ownership rights without resorting to equivalence?
The United States has a tradition of being skeptical of consolidated power whether in the hands of government or unaccountable groups of people. If corporations are people they are unlike any people you and I will ever meet with more influence than any single individual can typically wield.
Having said this it does not mean that all people or all government actions are wrong intrinsically. I simply mean that any accumulation of power without accountability is worth curtailing.
A bit of History
What constitutes religious freedom has always been subject to the laws and norms of the present time. Religious freedom has and will continue to change. Cases having to do with religious freedom and rights have constantly been adjudicated in U.S. law. For instance, as an employee you do not have a right to claim religious freedom exemptions for not working during certain days or times of the year if your exercise of that right puts an undue burden on your fellow employees. (I.E. an employee of a small business is not entitled to excessive time off even to practice faith.)
In 1878 in a case Reynolds v. United States a prominent Mormon leader challenged polygamy laws on the basis of religious freedom. The court ruled unanimously that Reynolds had a right to his personal views but that his liberty did not extend to his actions. He could claim no right to be a polygamist because marriage was to be entered into one person at a time.
In 1925 the Society of Sisters’ sued the State of Oregon for banning private schools. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Sisters religious freedom entitled them to run a faith-based school.
In 1990 two Native Americans sued the state of Oregon for denying them unemployment benefits on being dismissed for using cannabis in a religious ceremony. Back then, Justice Scalia ruled that both employees had no claim against the State of Oregon because the law did not specifically target their religious beliefs, but was generally applied to all citizens.
That court case sparked then Cong. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to introduce the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill passed unanimously in the U.S. House and with all but three votes in the U.S. Senate.
Historically the laws of the U.S. have been very generous in allowing for religious exemptions and the free exercise of religion, but when there are major social changes, what constitutes freedom of religion also changes. We have moved in times past from a nation with slavery to a nation without, from a nation with little rights for women to a nation with substantial rights, from a nation of discrimination on the basis of color to a nation where our laws no longer support such things.
On the issue of abortion there is still a great deal left unsettled. For the time being the court is allowing an accommodation for religious owners.
Will this mean a parade of terrible actions done by the hands of Christians and other religious people? I think the answer is mostly no. The court is unlikely to allow religious businesses to have different standards for same-sex couples.
I also don’t think this case is a real clear win for religious freedom. It’s unclear what lower courts will now rule on in terms of similar claims. I think we will see more cases on religious freedom, but those cases will not be as clear cut if they do not have to do with matters of life and death (i.e. how one views abortion).
The main lesson: Christians should be very careful on what they bring before the courts. Our culture and even popular Christian thinking uses one standard, but God judges the heart and the substance of what we do. This should all give us great pause.