Last month, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the US Supreme Court issued the controversial ruling that Christian owners of closely held for-profit corporations had a religious liberty right to deny contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Hobby Lobby and two other companies had sought exemptions from the section of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) that required birth control coverage at no extra charge to the employee. The company owners claimed that they believed life begins at conception, and therefore it would violate their beliefs to facilitate the use of birth control methods that sometimes prevent implantation of an embryo. The Court ruled in favor of the employers, holding that corporations are “persons” for purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a statute that prohibits government from indirectly burdening the free exercise of religion).
I am 42 years old, apparently infertile, happy with my current number of children (one), politically pro-choice but morally troubled by abortion. I depend on birth control to manage a reproductive health condition that would otherwise be severely disabling. This court case reminds me how privileged I am to work for a nondiscriminatory employer (myself) and to have enough money to pay for birth control out of pocket. I don’t have to be afraid of having more kids than I can support, or of losing my job because of disability-related absences. That’s precisely why Hobby Lobby angers and frightens me, as a woman and a Christian. The gospels tell us that basic security shouldn’t be the privilege of the few.
Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that abortion and contraception are sinful. Is it theologically appropriate for Christian business owners to leverage the power of the state, and the economic power of employer over employee, to avoid being tainted by participation in these sins? I don’t believe so.
Note that the plaintiffs were not arguing that their exemption would actually result in fewer women using birth control (although this is clearly what they want). The Court assumed that the Obamacare mandate was valid and a compelling government interest. They were just dickering over whether there was a way to implement it while allowing Hobby Lobby’s owners to keep their hands clean.
Jesus denounced the Pharisees for obsessing over personal religious purity at the expense of socioeconomic equality. After Hobby Lobby, who is going to have the most difficulty accessing the medications they need? Women who are too poor to pay out of pocket, who have fewer job skills and opportunities to find a different employer. The Hobby Lobby exemption is a private-sector version of the Hyde Amendment prohibiting Medicaid funding for abortions; both create one law for the rich and another for the poor.
I don’t believe Christians should take advantage of economic inequality to enforce what we believe to be God’s will. Coercive shortcuts reveal our lack of faith. We’re not willing to make personal sacrifices to bring about the outcome we desire, like the Pharisees who laid heavy burdens on others that they didn’t bear themselves. Instead of cutting off their employees’ family-planning options, Christian-owned corporations should go out of their way to ensure that their employees have adequate childcare and wages to support a family.
Jesus portrayed the kingdom of heaven (on earth) as a place where everyone has food, shelter, health, and safety, not because some more powerful person thinks they deserve it, but because everyone is a child of God. That kingdom is far from our current reality. Workers depend on employers for basic survival needs. That power gap is evidence of our fallen world, not something to be exploited and widened in the name of “Christian values”.