Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.


Column #084. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print July 22, 2014

What constitutes religious freedom?

The Supreme Court exempted Hobby Lobby from the requirement of providing certain kinds of contraceptive coverage for its employees. The case was decided by five Roman Catholic men and met with fierce dissent by the four other justices, three of them Jews and three women, one of whom is Roman Catholic.

When lines of division follow so strikingly the justices' religious affiliation and gender, one can wonder just how impartial and objective the decision is.

The Hobby Lobby ruling has left open two fundamental questions:

  • What is religion?
  • What does the rule of law mean for an American?

Defining religion is harder than you think.

Belief in God? Well, Buddhists don't believe in God. Does this mean Buddhism isn't a religion, or, conversely, that belief in God isn't necessary to religion?

You might think, as I do, that religion requires social interaction, even institutions, but philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, almost 90 years ago, wrote that "religion is solitariness." He called churches, rituals, bibles and codes of behavior "the trappings of religion, its passing forms." For him, individualism is of religion's essence. An individual's religious freedom, as defined by the individual, is absolute and trumps every other consideration.

Whatever your working definition of religion, it is probably influenced by the media — as much by how they report as by what. In recent years, the impression left by the preponderance of news reports is that religious people in America, most of them Christians, are socially and culturally conservative. In Minnesota, it was Archbishop John Nienstedt's sending 400,000 DVDs in 2010 opposing gay marriage that got most of the coverage, not the resolutions of other Christian churches supporting it.

Writing for the majority in the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Samuel Alito says the decision is strictly limited in its reach. It didn't take long — precisely one day — to reveal the absurdity of this claim. Fourteen conservative Christian leaders wrote to President Obama, asking for a religious exemption from his upcoming executive order banning hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors. Their letter made the front pages.

A week later, a letter signed by more than 100 religious leaders — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — urging the president not to make such an exception received scant attention. A statement by the Rev. Serene Jones, one of the signers and president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, declares the issue clearly: "As people of faith, we should be exemplary and not exempted." She goes on to say, "Jesus came to protect the most vulnerable. The faith community that taught me never to throw stones should not have special permission from the White House to throw stones. It is simply theologically indefensible."

So, there is no "one" religious conviction, no "one" kind of religious freedom.

The Hobby Lobby ruling also calls into question — and undermines — a basic feature of American identity: respect for the rule of law.

As soon as religious freedom is a reason to disregard some part of a law, then any religious conviction becomes a warrant for ignoring any part of any law. And there isn't any clear rationale for stopping short of the implication of Whitehead's definition of religion — we have as many religions as we have people.

But my right to religious freedom should not encroach on another citizen's right to be protected from employment discrimination.

Being an American doesn't mean I agree with every law; neither does it mean I always get my way. It might even mean that I engage in civil disobedience and go to jail, as many people who opposed the Vietnam War did. But Hobby Lobby asked for an exemption rather than take the consequences of disobeying the Affordable Care Act — an act of Congress this same Supreme Court has declared constitutional.

Answers to what is religion and what does the rule of law mean in America are not clear or easy. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court answered prematurely and partially. I'm an American Christian who believes they answered wrong.