Why Liberals are Wrong on Hobby Lobby and Religious Freedom

The Supreme Court agreed to review Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, a landmark case that challenges provisions in Obamacare that require employers to offer insurance coverage for birth control. The owners of Hobby Lobby believe that life begins at conception and thus have objections to providing coverage for so-called “abortifacients.” Complying with the birth-control mandate would either violate their beliefs or subject them to millions of dollars in fines.

As you might expect, the left is trumping up misleading narratives about the case. For instance:

No, women’s rights are not being “trumped.” The women employees of Hobby Lobby are voluntarily choosing to work there and sign a contract that says that they won’t get certain kinds of health insurance. Contrary to how the left portrays it, this is essential to individual freedom, not antithetical to it. Having true freedom requires that one have the right to bind oneself in various ways by entering into contracts with others or modify one’s behavior in order to gain something which isn’t originally one’s.

We grasp this. For example, all citizens have a right to bear arms. But some public businesses do not allow people who are carrying guns to enter. And, this isn’t thought of as the business owner “imposing his beliefs on others” or “trumping others’ rights.” That’s because we value private ownership. The Second Amendment guarantees our right to carry a handgun, but not the right to enter someone else’s property. The owner of a property or public business is the sole arbiter of who is allowed to enter it. He is free to prevent others from entering it for any reason he deems fit (except some.)

The same rationale applies to free speech issues. Recently, A&E fired Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson for his comments about gay rights in the GQ magazine. Did A&E’s CEO trump Phil’s right to free speech? Absolutely not. Phil has a right to free speech, but not one to be perpetually employed by a private company. Freedom entails Phil’s right to say whatever he wants, and also his employer’s right to terminate him when he pleases to (as long as he does not violate the contract he is bound by.)

Similarly, when Hobby Lobby offers a job on some terms, it is not violating anyone’s “right” to a job at some different terms, the simple reason being that no one is entitled to a job there. If someone does not like the terms, he should not accept them and work somewhere else! The government should not coerce someone to employ others at terms that he does not accept. To let it do so violates a fundamental freedom of individuals and corporations: the freedom of contract.

Some warn that letting Hobby Lobby refrain from offering birth control insurance will result in a slippery slope. What if some employer does not want to offer insurance for cancer? The answer’s simple: almost no one would want to work for such an employer. Consumers might also choose to boycott it. Thus, the employer would be forced to re-evaluate his decision. If, however, he has a strong objection with offering cancer insurance, he can continue doing so and operate his not-so-stellar business. Thus, everyone ends up being free.

Still others contend that arming the government with a power to govern the terms of contracts between citizens is good for utilitarian reasons — “let the government prohibit terms that we don’t like and we would all be better off.” But, that’s a mistaken view of morality. People have varying conceptions of what’s good for them based on their moral beliefs. They should be allowed to live their lives according to their own values, and not be forced to adhere to the ones that the government decides to be “right.” And, even if exceptions are carved out to this general rule (like minimum wage requirements), that is what they should remain — exceptions, not the norm.

As I see it, at stake in this case is not just contraception coverage, but whether individuals can operate a business without being required to violate their conscience. I hope the Supreme Court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby.

Note: I make a moral argument in this post, instead of presenting a legal case that takes complications of US law into account. For extended legal arguments, refer amicus curiae briefs filed by various organizations, particularly the one by Cato Institute. 


Update 1: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 25. Here’s the transcript. According to a POLITICO report, the Justices were skeptical of White House’s position!

Update 2: The Supreme Court decided the case (now called Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby! Justice Alito, in the majority opinion, wrote that

1. RFRA applies to closely-held for-profit corporations

2. HHS’ contraception mandate “substantially burdens” the exercise of religion

3. Even if it is assumed that the government has a compelling interest in offering cost-free access to contraception, it has failed to show that it is using the “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.