On November 6th, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided to hear the case of Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell; a case which represented a "religious liberty" based claim against mandates included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) also referred to as "Obamacare". As some may recall, religious liberty was also the grounds for a previous lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act; that suit being leveled by Hobby Lobby et al and being heard by SCOTUS in 2014. In the case of Little Sisters of the Poor, the primary issue of conflict is the following: The Sisters object to the PPACA employer mandate requiring contraception coverage as part of employee health insurance plans, and the Sisters also object to the accommodation offered to them which allows the Sisters to opt out of providing coverage for contraception thus transitioning the responsibility to a third party administrator or an insurance company. The accommodation, as explained by CNN:
Under the accommodation, a religious nonprofit organization must first notify the entity that issues its group health plan or the Department of Health and Human Services that it has a religious objection. After the notification, either the insurance plan or a third-party administrator becomes responsible for providing the birth control coverage directly.
The briefing of the lawsuit the Sisters originally submitted to the court explained their objection to the accommodation as follows:
the Little Sisters sincerely believe that all the available compliance methods would make them morally complicit in grave sin
This passage highlights an important and concerning theme that appears to be re-occurring in 'religious liberty' cases and arguments. Specifically, this passage clearly identifies not that the plaintiff is being forced to sin, but that the plaintiff is being 'forced' to be 'morally complicit' in someone else's sin. if this kind of argument sounds familiar, it may be because we've heard it recently: the now infamous Kim Davis - the county clerk in Kentucky that gained notoriety when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples - used this same kind of rationale for her actions.
With Little Sisters of the Poor and Kim Davis in mind, let's flash back to June 30th, 2014 - the day the Supreme Court ruled on the previously mentioned Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case. In that case, Hobby Lobby CEO David Green argued the following: (1) drugs such as Plan B and Ella were 'abortifacients' (i.e. - "abortion" drugs), (2) David Green's religious beliefs forbid the usage of abortion drugs, and thus (3) David Green's company should not have to comply with ACA HHS mandates to cover "abortion" drugs in their employee health insurance plans. Once again, we see the vicarious sin concept: the mandate Green objected to didn't force he or anyone in his family to use drugs he felt morally opposed to; rather, it mandated access for others to partake in the alleged sin. In that case, the SCOTUS ruled in Mr. Green's favor on a 5-4 vote. Of particular note in the majority opinion was this passage:
It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable. In fact, this Court considered and rejected a nearly identical argument in Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707. The Court’s “narrow function . . . is to determine” whether the plaintiffs’ asserted religious belief reflects “an honest conviction,” id., at 716, and there is no dispute here that it does.
This precedent, when considered objectively, is quite incredible. Quite directly, this passage renders utterly meaningless the veracity of the claim which acts as the basis for a lawsuit and/or legal argument; rather, all that matters is whether or not the person making the claim holds the claim as an 'honest' religious belief. This precedent was presumably crucial in the case ruling; because Mr. Green's definition of "abortifacient" was not shared by the entity specifically tasked with determining the definition of it (including what drugs fit the definition).
So, Mr. Green's classifications of the drugs Plan B and Ella were scientifically inaccurate; his classifications of the drugs were objectively wrong. But, his case had merit solely because he claimed his beliefs were 'genuinely held religious beliefs'. Again, this is quite an incredible precedent; quite an "ugly" precedent. The precedent here grants credence to ignorance so long as said ignorance is blanketed exclusively with a 'religious' quilt. Presumably, if David Green holds exactly the same beliefs about Plan B and Ella and makes the exact objection to PPACA because of it - but cites a sci-fi novel as his source of motivation instead of the Bible - he has no legal argument. He claims Christianity as his motivation though, and now suddenly a dead-in-the-water case becomes a winning case. And so it goes; the Little Sisters of the Poor also have a chance at the same kind of ruling. The cases have some different elements of course, but the framework now exists for a similar ruling.
And while that's concerning enough, an undercurrent within this "Religious Liberty" meme is - on some relevant level - potentially even more concerning. The undercurrent I'm speaking of is that Christianity specifically is at the center of these recent conflicts. The groups and individuals supporting this kind of alleged "religious freedom' or "religious liberty" are almost exclusively Christian, and their support for the David Green's, Little Sisters of the Poor, and Kim Davis's of the country regularly include references not to religion in general, but to Christianity specifically.
This Christian specific religious liberty claim may lead some to wonder: are people who support religious liberty in support of the concept generally, or only for Christianity? While I can't speak for others, I've certainly wondered that. Perhaps a simple thought experiment will help answer that question. Religion is, obviously, a rather nebulous concept. People can change religions freely, can embrace no religion at all, etc. Conversions happen all the time; from one religion to another, from no religion to a religion, and from religion to no religion. So, consider the following: David Green goes to sleep tonight and wakes up tomorrow claiming he's had a religious re-awakening. He's convinced in a faith which views the act of not following the faith a "grave sin". Thus, he refuses to provide insurance coverage to employees that visit hospitals and/or doctors that embrace any other faith than the one he himself follows (for example, "Christian" or "Jewish" hospitals would be prohibited). His rationale is simple: if he were to cover services provided by hospitals and/or providers offered by an entity with a different religious affiliation, he'd be "morally complicit" in the "grave sin" of an 'infidel' lifestyle.
Let's remember: if the Little Sisters of the Poor are justified in their claim, then Mr. Green has a right to not have to be "morally complicit" in someone else's "sin". And, he gets to decide what sin is based on his 'deeply held religious beliefs'. In the first Hobby Lobby ruling, the SCOTUS made clear the veracity of the foundational claim is irrelevant; it just needs to be an honest religious conviction. Certainly, there are religious faiths whereby some of the adherents of the faith claim the faith's Holy Book forbids the practice of any other faith. Mr. Green's religious re-awakening could, plausibly, be entirely genuine. In this scenario, would all of the defenders of "religious liberty" that have lined up behind David Green, Kim Davis, Little Sisters of the Poor, etc. be lining up behind Mr. Green in support of his "religious freedom"? Would multiple GOP presidential candidates be running to Green's defense calling him a hero?
It must be noted: this isn't a "slippery slope" argument. Rather, this is a parallel plane argument. While the Little Sisters of the Poor case is still pending, the ruling from the Hobby Lobby case alone makes the hypothetical example just provided a functional reality. The only difference in the case just provided is that Christianity isn't the preferred religion of the plaintiff.
And that's where the recent strand of "religious liberty" claims lose their credibility; the people vociferously supporting it don't appear to actually want "it" generally. Rather, they appear to want"religious liberty" for their religion, and their religion only. Indeed, when the onion of the "religious liberty" contingent is peeled, one finds groups of people that regularly speak out against religious freedom for people adhering to other faiths besides Christianity. Specifically, one finds people who've opposed mosques near the 9/11 ground, opposed mosques in various states generally, stated Muslims shouldn't be President, stated Atheists shouldn't be President, mocked the President for allegedly being a Muslim, etc.
This kind of selective application of "religious freedom" isn't "religious liberty". When one wants "liberty" for their religion and no one else's, what they are actually advocating for is religious tyranny. And if that language strikes anyone as unfairly harsh, consider the manner in which "religious liberty" is applied by some Christians to issue of same sex marriage. According to some Christians, legalization of same sex marriage is an attack on their religious freedom. This is, after all, the Kim Davis argument in a nutshell. And it is often times said by Christians that the attempt to legalize same sex marriage is an attempt by those who support equal rights for gay people to "force their beliefs" onto the opposing Christian (and to be clear, most the people who oppose gay marriage are indeed Christian).
Think about that objectively. Group A - people supporting equal rights for gay people - want all people to have the same rights. Group B - people opposed to equal rights for gay people - want only people just like themselves to have certain rights, while people not like them should have lesser rights. And yet, it is Group B claiming Group A is trying to "force" their "lifestyle" upon them.
This is the twisted lens created by the current state of "religious liberty" in America. The group saying everyone should have equal rights is being accused of trying to 'force' something onto others, and that accusation is coming from a group of people openly calling for a lesser set of rights for anyone different than themselves. This, folks, is how one goes about playing tennis without the net. This is the ramification of Christians getting preferential treatment on these issues for years. When the winds of modernity begin eroding that preferential treatment down to simply equal treatment in relation to everyone else, Christians feel like they're being attacked because they've been so used to having their religion honored specifically and exclusively.
Indeed, if we plan to get anywhere of substance of this issue, we must put aside the idea that both groups in this equation have equally valid opinions. The positions articulated by the two groups in mention are not equal in merit, logic, or reason. One group's opinion is purely conjecture, and actually seeks to limit rights for other people purely on religious grounds. Again, this isn't freedom; it's tyranny by definition.
And this basic reality is true for the "religious liberty" landscape beyond just the same sex marriage issue as well. Kim Davis, David Green, The Little Sisters of the Poor - these are people and entities basing their argument on their alleged 'right' not to have to exist in connection or proximity to someone else who may be given the opportunity to engage in behavior arbitrarily deemed as 'sin'. This concept is ludicrous on it's face, and virtually every person claiming otherwise would likely happily concede the point the moment any other religion besides Christianity is put in the driver's seat.
Which leads to the only real nonreligious argument Christians have in this fight: the appeal to the will of the majority. Most people in the nation proclaim some kind of Christian faith (including a majority of the Supreme Court Justices), thus people calling for religious tyranny under the veil of religious freedom sometimes find solidarity in their desires to deny equal rights to people who are different than them. Of course, our system of governance was designed in part specifically to ensure the will of the majority was not used as an excuse to limit the civil rights of the minority.
Thus, know this: if you find yourself arguing on behalf of religious freedom, ask yourself if you'd argue the same point in a situation where the plaintiff adhered to a religion you despised. And if you find yourself arguing on behalf of religious freedom by appealing to the opinions of the majority, ask yourself why you must turn to a textbook logical fallacy to make your argument. If you answer those two questions honestly, you just might find the pile of sand your argument stands on eroding beneath your feet.