Vail Daily column: Do religious freedoms trump contraceptive rights? |

Vail Daily column: Do religious freedoms trump contraceptive rights?

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

What’s the proper balance between citizens’ religious liberties and contraceptive rights?

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that for-profit businesses have religious rights to curtail medical benefits to women of child-bearing age. They can opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide employee contraception coverage.

David Green is founder and chief executive of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., an Oklahoma City based arts-and-crafts retailer. The Greens, along with Wood Specialties — a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker owned by the Mennonite Hahn family — expects their brand of biblical ethics be practiced in their shops. They are motivated to let their “light shine before humankind, so that all may see their good works … ” (Matthew 5:16).

The high court, in its majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito — a conservative New Jersey Roman Catholic appointed by President George W. Bush — agreed with Hobby Lobby and Wood Specialties. They can restrict contraceptive coverage that offers the “morning after” pill and intrauterine devices. These evangelicals believe such contraceptives are tantamount to abortion, which their corporate owners’ religion outlaws.

Jonathan Merritt, a Religion News Service columnist, asks: Is Hobby Lobby against abortion when the company must pay for it? Does this corporation look the other way when they profit by its use? Merritt points out that much of Hobby Lobby’s merchandise is manufactured in China, which practices “nightmarish labor conditions, inadequate workplace regulation, and rampant ‘child labor’ and where family planning policies lead to 13 million abortions every year.”

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Today, debate rages over whether the federal government has over-reached in the Affordable Care Act, robbing evangelicals of religious rights. The Supreme Court’s ruling allows corporations to foist on employees their own faith convictions about contraception.

When freedom of religion was protected by the First Amendment’s ratification in the late 1780s, the tension was reversed between Christianity and the government. Then James Madison and Thomas Jefferson erected a wall of separation between church and state. They feared a Christian tradition might grow powerful and control the federal government. Intrusive Christianity, not government, was their chief concern.

Founding fathers debated evangelicals who detested a federal government. Patrick Henry, born-again agitator for liberty, stormed from constitutional ratification meetings, arguing that “the consolidated government” in the Constitution might produce “a great and mighty empire” but at what grievous cost? Personal liberties lost.

“What is liberty?” thundered South Carolina’s James Lincoln, “If you adopt this Constitution, have you this power (of liberty)? No.” He feared a constitutional federal government would deny states’ rights and curtail Southerners’ religious freedom.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, colonies funded religious institutions. Local laws discriminated against voting and office-holding by religious dissenters, Jews and Catholics.

Jefferson frowned on government favoring one Christian denomination. He espoused competition among faith traditions that tolerated differing viewpoints. They would flourish, he believed.

The recent Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision again raises colonial misgivings. What’s the proper balance between the federal government protecting citizens’ contraceptive liberty and a corporation’s right to put a public face on the company’s religious practices?

Voicing a pro-business slant, the High Court’s ruling slights women’s rights for contraceptive coverage of their choosing in child-bearing years. Doesn’t evangelical faith infringe on another’s rights if a woman employee uses the “morning after” pill because she believes God wants responsible family planning? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a minority counterattack, vigorously argues that denying contraceptive coverage curtails women’s reproductive freedom.

Moreover, the Supreme Court sets a dangerous precedent by extending religious protections enjoyed by people and churches to businesses. How should we regard this strange notion that corporations are composite people? Does the description of a corporation having “corporate personhood” make sense? The placard carried by Occupy Wall Street protesters had it right: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”

Conservatives switched strategy to advance their partial anti-contraceptive agenda. During George W. Bush’s presidency, when evangelicals enjoyed Oval Office photo opportunities, they pushed for political freedoms based on an agenda of God, guns and anti-government.

Many Americans felt uncomfortable because of the cozy relationship between religious conservatives and Bush II. Due to the Republican Party’s declining support from women, young people and minorities, now conservatives mimic Hobby Lobby founders’ strategy and play their religious freedom card. They try to slow public approval of same-sex marriage by saying its practice robs them of religious freedom. Earlier this year, Arizona’s Republican-controlled state Legislature passed some stringent “religious freedom” laws. When the NFL found them discriminatory and threatened to play next year’s Super Bowl elsewhere, Gov. Jan Brewer reluctantly vetoed the controversial laws.

Doesn’t extending religious freedom to family-controlled corporations reduce women’s reproductive rights? Is this Supreme Court’s ruling favoring Hobby Lobby fair and balanced?

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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