The fireworks had not yet filled the sky, but the week of July Fourth started with a celebratory explosion for those who hold close one of the same civic values as our revolutionary forebears, namely the free exercise of religion. In a 5-to-4 decision on June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the so-called Hobby Lobby case that the federal government cannot force the owners of closely held corporations to provide, through employee health plans, contraception services that they find objectionable on religious grounds. “HHS’s contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion,” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the majority opinion, for the mandate required the Christians who own Hobby Lobby “to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”
The rockets’ red glare quickly followed on the Internet as combatants on either side of the issue stormed the digital battlements for final detonations of celebration or denunciation. The scorching reactions in each camp, however, are by and large unfounded. The court offered an important corrective to the Department of Health and Human Services’ flawed contraception mandate. It is important for what it seeks to protect, but it was also sensible and limited.
But after months of litigation and cultural combat in the media, the two sides on this civil matter are speaking well past each other. Many supporters of no-cost contraception have become incapable of comprehending the religious liberty claims of employers; many opponents of the mandate trade in the darkest suspicions of government intentions and shut down avenues of empathy that might allow a clearer hearing of the concerns of people on the other side of the debate.
America has vigorously denounced government overstepping in this arena while at the same time expressing concern that the church may have joined the public policy discussions in too great detail. Now we find ourselves as befuddled as most Americans, struggling with the qualifiers and worst-case-scenario spinning inspired by this cultural confrontation.
The court ruling has been framed by many as a victory for religious freedom. This it is, but this view of the outcome is perhaps too narrow. The ruling also represents the triumph of liberalism, in its broadest sense: the political philosophy that seeks to maximize human freedom and foster a robust civil society in which private entities—individuals, of course, but also religious institutions and businesses—can pursue their definition of the common good.
In a pluralistic country like the United States, there will inevitably be conflicting visions of that good. In this case, some will not be satisfied until the contraception mandate is repealed; others, until every woman has unfettered access to all forms of birth control.
The court proposes that the continuing impasse over the H.H.S. mandate could be resolved through the existing accommodation to nonprofit religious employers offered by the Obama administration, suggesting in a footnote how that accommodation could be further modified to address the concerns of religious employers. In doing so it seeks a way out that, while clearly imperfect, respects the reasonable freedom and conscience claims of both sides. On the one hand, employees may yet have access to services through alternative means as they manage their reproductive health and family planning in accordance with their consciences. On the other hand, business owners informed by sincerely held religious beliefs will not be forced to provide directly insurance coverage that violates their consciences.
Since the verdict was announced, many have expressed the hope that renewed negotiation rather than further litigation could end the standoff. The court fight, after all, has produced collateral damage worth assessing. The Catholic Church is a natural supporter of efforts to achieve universal health care, but an egregious miscalculation within the Obama administration transformed many Catholics and the church’s leaders into political adversaries of the reform plan. The administration should have allowed from the beginning for a broader religious exemption to the mandate.
Though not a claimant to this decision, church entities have engaged in a parallel legal campaign to revoke the H.H.S. mandate altogether. But that willingness to join the courtroom fray, however just the cause, risks diminishing the church’s ability to engage in a mutually respectful dialogue with civil society, especially if we are perceived to be more interested in litigation than in evangelization.
The lawsuits currently in process will have to run their course, and it is probable that other legal battles may have to be initiated to protect religious liberty in the future. But such fights should be joined judiciously and with charity for all. Ultimately, the church needs people to know Christians by our love, not our lawyers.