Monday, April 21, 2014

The Question of Hobby Lobby and the First Amendment

A lot of discussion was generated on Facebook after I posted a story about Hobby Lobby ( Hobby Lobby evidently pays a beginning wage that is 93% higher than the federally mandated minimum wage. They also pay a higher wage to part time employees.  They are, of course, embroiled in a debate over whether or not they have to provide certain kinds of birth control (that they consider abortifacients) as a part of their health insurance coverage. 

I want to make clear up front that I don’t actually agree with Hobby Lobby’s stance on the birth control methods (at least as far as I am able to determine). But that isn’t the issue.  For me the issue is whether or not a company has first amendment rights. One argument is that they should abide by the laws that the majority has decided on. However, the point of the Bill of Rights was to protect the rights of the minority.[1]  I have also been asked why the owners can’t just privately practice their religion by not using IUD’s or morning after pills. I want to address that question and then provide a scenario to think about.

For many Christians keeping religion private is not a viable option. We believe that Jesus is Lord of the whole world, not just of the church. Now before you go accusing me of wanting a theocracy, let me assure my readers that I want no such thing. A theocracy didn’t work in ancient Israel and it wouldn’t work now.  And Jesus was pretty clear that he wasn’t interested in creating earthly power structures. In my opinion, a theocracy put in place by even the most well-meaning Christians would eventually, if not rapidly, degenerate into a pretty horrible parody of the Kingdom of God. However, we are called to live our lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So we are faced with something of a dilemma. If we are trying to live under the rule of Christ, then we have to place everything in our lives under that rule – personal and public lives, home and work.

As far as I can tell, Hobby Lobby has a higher minimum wage than necessary because they have placed the world of work under the Lordship of Christ. Have they done this perfectly? No. But they are trying. And the health insurance is a part of that.  Both the desire to pay better wages and the unwillingness to pay for what they see as abortifacients grow out of the same religious conviction. And, I would argue, they have the right to make that decision.  No one is being forced to work for Hobby Lobby. No one is forced to buy from them. They don’t provide a necessary public service (except for those craft-a-holics out there – you know who you are!). 

So here’s a scenario: the owners of Hobby Lobby lose the case and decide that they cannot contribute to what they see as violating their religious beliefs. So they sell their stores to a non-Christian company (we will call them the “Law Abiding Company” or LAC) that doesn’t try to align company policy with the Kingdom of God. LAC puts the appropriate insurance into place for all at the company who qualify. However, since they are not required to keep the salaries the same, or the hours, they decide (as a cost saving measure) to lower all beginning and part time salaries to minimum wage. Further, they know that it is far cheaper to more part time employees than full time because they would no longer have to provide health care. They could just let their employees, many of whom are now working fewer hours for less pay, buy their own insurance under Obamacare.  Thus, though LAC theoretically provides the “right” kind of health insurance to full time employees who can now get any kind of birth control they want, far fewer of their employees are on that health insurance.

LAC also decides to open on Sundays, since they have no religious reason not to, and they require their employees to make themselves available on that day if needed. Everyone has a rotating schedule, so probably no one has to work Sundays all the time, but if that is your schedule, that is when you show up.  And, of course, prices do not go down because the company owners are interested only in profit, so they are going to take that profit for themselves.

My questions are these: Is society better off? Are the people who work for Hobby Lobby better off? Who actually benefits from the decision not to allow Hobby Lobby to abide by their religious principles?

And a broader question is this: Does our society have to be so rigid that there is no room at all for differences of opinion? This is not an isolated incident and the implications are far greater than simply what happens to Hobby Lobby.  Perhaps there really isn’t room for diversity in our society, but I hope we think long and hard about what we are aiming for if that is the case.

[1] There are cases in which I think that First Amendment rights should be overridden, such as when a person’s life or public health is at stake, but this is not the case here.


  1. Employers may not discriminate against employees due to the employer's religious beliefs. From the ACLU: "For example, if an employee cannot work on Sunday due to his or her sincerely held religious beliefs and requests Sunday off as his or her Sabbath, an employer has an affirmative obligation to accommodate the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs as long as it does not cause an undue hardship on the business."


    Also, those of us on the liberal end of things are thinking very seriously about raising the minimum wage, so Hobby Lobby's wages would not be particularly high in comparison. Religion is not the only motivation for treating people ethically, as it turns out.

    Here's another alternative scenario:

    Hobby Lobby wins. Other businesses suddenly decide that they don't believe in birth control either, so they don't pay for it. Some poor women can't afford birth control, and a few of them die as a result. In addition, some businesses decide that since they can get out of any obligation via religious conviction, they do not have to hire Christians, because now a corporation can do anything for any reason as long as you can find a way to justify it as a religious conviction.

  2. You make some good points about other businesses potentially using religion as a reason for injustice. It has certainly happened before. But the fact that some may try to abuse a freedom doesn't mean that freedom should be limited. That is why we have the courts; to adjudicate unclear cases.

    And, to be clear, I don't think this just applies to Christians. Somehow we are going to have to figure out how to live with diversity in this country. We haven't done a very good job up until now, mainly because, as you point out elsewhere, Christians have been the privileged majority. I don't think this has been good for the Christian witness, but that is another post.

    Please note, I am just as interested in raising the minimum wage as the "liberals." And my claim, btw, is not that religion is the only reason for treating people ethically; I know plenty of unethical Christians. But I also understand the point of view of Christians who are trying to live out their faith. Is it just possible that you could see this as at least a potentially good thing?

    Finally, regardless of what the ACLU says, employees (particularly low paid ones) are at the mercy of their employers, and many employers really couldn't care less about one's religious convictions. And most low-level employees are not going to bring suit against a company who makes it clear that those who are willing to work on Sundays will get more hours, more opportunity, etc.

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