by Linda Ryan
Like a lot of other people, I’ve been reading and watching various reports and commentaries on the recent Hobby Lobby case. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Hobby Lobby should have the right to refuse to cover birth control for its employees on the grounds that it violates their (Hobby Lobby’s, or rather, Hobby Lobby’s major stockholder’s) religious beliefs. The Court has said that in this case, a corporation run for-profit and without a direct affiliation with a specific religious denomination (like a Roman Catholic or Baptist hospital, clinic or even bookstore) can claim religious grounds in refusing to cover specific medical procedures, devices or prescriptions. It’s got folks up in arms, in a manner of speaking, almost as much as the open carrying of assault rifles into stores and churches.
Perhaps the best summation came from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who noted in the minority dissention that allowing Hobby Lobby to prevail set a precedent for anybody to claim something someone else did or was doing conflicted with their religious beliefs and should not be allowed. There have been a host of spin-offs on that, including those who say that since they paid their federal taxes and some of that tax money went to fight a war they felt was unjust, they should be able to sue to have the government not include their tax money in any such conflict. I don’t think that one has a prayer (pardon the expression) of getting anywhere legally but it does make me stop and think, how far can this go?
My employer has forbidden smoking on the premises, even in private cars parked on the premises. It isn’t so much a religious thing with him as it is a health one. People work for him with the understanding that if they smoke, they will have to go across the street or down the block. He doesn’t go so far as to say they can’t smoke anywhere, including in their own homes, like some firms do, just on his own property. His responsibility is to give his employees a clean, safe environment in which to work, and, to him, smoking does not contribute to that as well as being a personal dislike. It makes sense and the employees go along with it. But what if he were Hindu or Jewish or Muslim? Could employees be forbidden to bring sandwiches containing beef or pork? If he were a Jehovah’s Witness doctor, could he refuse to give someone a life-saving transfusion because his religion forbade him receiving one himself? Maybe that’s a frivolous example, but it could happen and very possibly be legally upheld.
What I think it comes down to is judgment, not necessarily one person judging the actions of another but rather the judgment of God. Religions usually give a list of thou shalt nots because their holy texts or great teachers or clergy say that these are the precepts that God (or a god, or an authoritative figure) has declared to be the rules and to be a believer and a member, those rules should be applied to a member’s daily life. If they don’t follow the rules, they could be (a) punished or (b) expelled for their sins or perceived sins. In some cases, including school honor codes, if someone is aware of some wrongdoing and do not report it, they are equally guilty and should be punished the same as if they did the deed themselves. I think this is a key to the Hobby Lobby thing; the owners who do not want to cover birth control believe that by providing it they are going against what God expects and that they will ultimately have to face judgment themselves for allowing someone else to do something they, the owners, believe as clearly against God’s will.
And there’s the rub — God’s will. The Bible says to be fruitful and multiply. It also equates a form of birth control as evil in the story of Onan (Gen. 38:8-10). Of course, at that time sperm were considered to be very tiny but fully formed infants who just needed to be implanted into a woman to be incubated to full infant size. What got Onan in trouble was that he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law so that his deceased brother would have a legitimate offspring, a duty Onan was supposed to do to preserve his dead brother’s inheritance and line. Onan’s punishment was for selfishness more than anything else, and his punishment was meted on the basis of that. People use Onan as a figurehead for opposing any form of birth control without thinking that there might be something else more important that caused God’s wrath.
When I stand before God to be judged, am I going to be judged on what I did or what I allowed other people to do? I don’t believe in the death penalty but will I be judged for paying taxes that contribute to the continuation of such a practice? Am I going to be held responsible for the cutbacks in education because people I didn’t vote for decided we needed to cut school lunch programs, arts programs, and a curriculum aimed at teaching kids to think rather than just answer standardized test questions? I believe God wants me to pay attention to things that benefit all people, not just major financial contributors, powerful conglomerates, or even people who think like I do. I think I will be judged on that more than what I make other people do to fit my particular religious beliefs.
What the Supreme Court has decided is that religion and religious beliefs have more weight than health and safety issues. It has decided that one segment of society can be discounted because of religious beliefs. And, as so many have pointed out, it opens the door for a lot of pain and suffering to come from lawsuits and decisions where a person or corporation decides it can make the rules reflective of their religious preferences, whether or not those who work or associate with that person or corporation have religious beliefs of their own that may or may not coincide with their employer’s or associate’s.
The final decision is going to be up to God. Meanwhile we all have a responsibility to “Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8d). That doesn’t necessarily mean we are responsible for our neighbors lives and choices other than helping them meet their needs for adequate food, clean water, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, safety and equal access to all of those things as we have ourselves. We’re responsible for caring for the widows, orphans, prisoners, the sick, the dying, and even the resident aliens in our land (check the Bible, it’s in there more than once!); we’re not responsible for forcing them to attend our particular church on Sunday (or any other day declared a religious duty) or to obey tenets of a faith to which they don’t subscribe themselves. That’s simply not in our job description.
Where I think we do have responsibility for which we will be judged is if someone else comes to harm because of our insistence on adherence to our own religious beliefs. We can’t just wash our hands and say, “It must be God’s will” or “The Bible clearly states…” when in fact it actually doesn’t. God has given us a job to do and that job isn’t to put stumbling blocks in the way of people who are already crawling because they don’t have the strength or resources to walk. The Hobby Lobby decision will keep a lot of people crawling and put a lot of stumbling blocks in the way. There are already reverberations that restrict others even more, especially women.
What part of “Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” don’t we get? Aren’t we responsible for believing that?