“But you only need the light when it's burning low/ Only miss the sun when it starts to snow/ Only know you love her when you let her go,” croons the lead singer of the band Passenger. The song “Let her go” beautifully portrays the human propensity for taking something precious for granted until it’s gone. So it is with religious liberty in America. Americans have grown up with the freedom to believe as they wish, express their faith as they choose, and practice their religion as they please. They’ve never experienced what millions of Muslims in Myanmar, Christians in the Middle East, Jews in North Africa, and Hindus in Pakistan have known their whole lives—governments that suppress religious expression directly by force or indirectly by turning a blind eye toward violence against believers.
Given our experience, it would be easy to assume that the freedoms we enjoy today will be around tomorrow. We should not be so certain. Eternal vigilance, it is said, is the price of freedom. Believers of all stripes and those who have no religious faith should stand shoulder to shoulder against government encroachment on the free exercise of conscience even in instances when one’s own practice of faith is not directly threatened.
Such an opportunity to stand together is upon us. Religious freedom is at stake in two important cases now before the Supreme Court. In Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, the Court will determine whether the federal government can force businesses to fund health insurance coverage of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs for their employees against owners’ religious convictions.
David Green, the founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby, is a Christian who has worked to build a company that “Honor[s] the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.” The store closes on Sundays to honor the Sabbath, for example, despite it being lucrative shopping day for retailers. While the company’s insurance covers contraceptives, it does not pay for drugs that can take the life a child, such as the morning after-pill or the week-after pill. Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. is owned by Mennonites and the owners have convictions similar to those of the Green family.
Both business owners have sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) which provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in narrow circumstances. Forcing such owners to violate their religious convictions when conducting business or face ruinous financial penalties clearly violates the RFRA.
Since the Supreme Court agreed to take these two cases in late November, the University of Notre Dame and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students have filed similar suits. Of the 86 different lawsuits against the Administration’s contraceptive/ abortifacient drug coverage mandate, roughly half of the petitioners are non-profits and the rest are for-profit businesses.
One need not be prolife or religious to understand what is at stake in these cases, nothing less than the free exercise of conscience. Forcing people to choose between paying exorbitant government fines that will ultimately destroy their business and purchasing that which violates their core beliefs is not a choice any citizen of a free country should have to make. If the Court decides against Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, it will set a precedent that will harm people of all faiths and no faith alike. What couldn’t the government force people to purchase against their convictions? It will be said you had freedom and you let her go.