Lately, religious liberty has been looking like the freedom that eats everyone else’s for breakfast. In Arizona and other states, fundamentalists said they were acting in the name of religious liberty when trying to pass laws that would allow businesses to refuse to serve people based on theological or moral objection (people who just happened to be gay). And in the Supreme Court challenges to the Obamacare contraception mandate, two companies run by conservative Christians, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, argue that the government can’t require them to provide health insurance that covers birth control because that would violate the religious beliefs of their businesses. In other cases making their way through the courts, religiously affiliated groups like Notre Dame and the charity Little Sisters of the Poor are objecting to the form their exemption from the contraception mandate takes, because, again, of religion.
The common thread here is the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that when the federal government makes a rule that substantially burdens someone’s free exercise of religion, it has to show a compelling government interest and use the least restrictive means to get where it wants to go. The effort in Arizona, and in other states, is to expand—dramatically—the protections in RFRA. And at the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood argue that RFRA allows them to refuse to provide birth control coverage to their employees. On these two fronts, religious liberty looks like a shield fundamentalists are throwing up against, well, sexual modernity. They’re not ready to accept same-sex marriage or sex without procreation, and they’re arguing that fundamentalist-owned businesses, as well as individuals and churches, shouldn’t have to.
All of this is giving religious liberty a bad name. In the Hobby Lobby case, groups representing atheists, agnostics, and children are going so far as to argue that RFRA itself is unconstitutional. Their brief, written by Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton, says this is an “extreme” law that “forces the needs of other believers and nonbelievers to be subservient to the believers invoking RFRA.” But the text of the law isn’t extreme, and up until now the Supreme Court hasn’t interpreted it that way. Instead, the court has gone with a middle-of-the-road reading of RFRA that has promoted respect for religious sensibilities—but stopped short of imposing a significant cost on those other believers and nonbelievers Hamilton’s brief worries about. RFRA strikes a balance, and that’s why liberals as well as conservatives fought for it in the first place.
Let’s start, though, with the big and obvious reason why the new wave of state religious freedom bills goes too far. Businesses that operate as public accommodations, meaning that they’re open to all comers, have to abide by anti-discrimination laws. If you want to refuse to have women or gay people as members, then you should have to operate as a private club open only to your own members. That’s the argument against the Arizona-style laws. (And since Arizona has no law preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the whole thing is a red herring. In that state, the caterer who doesn’t want to handle a gay wedding doesn’t have to.)
Hobby Lobby’s bid to be protected by RFRA also runs into problems because it’s a business. Congress wrote RFRA to protect “persons” against government regulations that substantially burden freedom of religion without a compelling rationale. While the Supreme Court has previously ruled that “persons” as used in RFRA includes nonprofit organizations like the Catholic Church, it has never said that the law applies to a for-profit business. If the justices wave their wands to turn Hobby Lobby into a person for RFRA, as they did to grant corporations and unions free-speech rights in Citizens United, they will be compounding their Corporations Are People error.
But rooting against Hobby Lobby or anti-gay bills doesn’t have to mean rooting against religious liberty. When Congress passed RFRA, liberals helped take the lead. The law was a disapproving response to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling in the case Employment Division v. Smith, a suit brought by two drug counselors who were fired after taking peyote in a Native American religious ceremony and couldn’t get unemployment benefits because their use of the drug violated state law. Could the state do this, or did their constitutional right to religious freedom mean they should be allowed to use peyote in a religious ceremony without penalty?