Hobby Lobby's Liberty, and Ours

By Robert Sirico

Religious liberty has long been considered our "first freedom" in America. So why are we spending so much time defending this freedom in court now?

Many celebrated the Supreme Court's June 30 ruling on Hobby Lobby. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: Plenty of other challenges are coming for churches, synagogues, mosques and, yes, businesses.

On July 21, President Obama issued an executive order that prohibits federal government contractors from "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" discrimination and forbids "gender identity" discrimination in the employment of federal employees. In a scathing response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decried the executive order as "unprecedented and extreme and should be opposed."

The bishops' response, authored by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, asserted that "in the name of forbidding discrimination, this order implements discrimination." The bishops predicted that "faithful Catholics and many other people of faith will not assent" to the deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality undergirding the order. "As a result, the order will exclude federal contractors precisely on the basis of their religious beliefs," the bishops said.

This means that Washington will now police the hiring and staffing policies of any church or charitable organization that holds federal contracts. The irony here is that the Catholic Church unequivocally opposes discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, without compromising its teachings on marriage or family. Who holds the moral high ground on this question, the federal government or the Church?

This was, in a way, inevitable. I've been sounding the alarm for more than two decades about the risks of church-based groups -- Catholic Charities comes immediately to mind -- becoming overly dependent on government contracts. What we should do is to "reprivatize" private charities. That's the only way these religious groups will be truly accountable and truly private.

One of the little noticed dimensions of the Hobby Lobby decision is the critical connection between the right of religious liberty and the freedom to live out one's moral and religious convictions as business owners and workers. The link is essential if our society is ever going to deal with the necessity of developing a culture that brings virtue and moral truth more deeply into our economic life.

Hobby Lobby and the threats to religious liberty posed by Obamacare are about much more than merely birth control (which the company provides for its employees in any case), or even forcing employers to pay for abortion-inducing drugs and devices (which was Hobby Lobby's principal objection). No, what's at stake in this ruling is the religious liberty of the people who own Hobby Lobby and Mardel and Conestoga Wood Specialties, and the fact that they did not surrender those rights when turn on the lights of their businesses every morning.

It is worth noting here that there is an important link between religious liberty and the right to private property. One of the traditional justifications for private property that one finds in, for instance, Roman Catholic teaching is that it provides the holder of that property and his dependents with a sphere of liberty that in turn limits the state's control over a society's resources. Hence, without ownership of these resources, it would have been hard if not impossible for Hobby Lobby to make its case against the full might of the most aggressively secularist administration in America's history.

We simply must not use employment law and anti-discrimination executive orders to force not just businesses but also churches, synagogues, and other religious associations to betray their beliefs. Such an effort ought to signal to anyone seriously concerned about preserving the fundamental freedoms upon which the republic was founded.

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision was a victory for those who desire to maintain this American inheritance. I just hope that we all realize that the extent to which the security of our freedoms depends on maintaining the liberty of all.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.

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