The U.S. Supreme Court takes up the fascinating, difficult Hobby Lobby case next week. The company’s owners don’t want to pay for employee health insurance that includes some contraceptives, because the drugs violate their religious beliefs.
The government says the contraceptive coverage must be provided to comply with Obamacare.
While the specifics are important, we might also use the case to think more broadly about the nature of freedom in the United States.
Schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. is a free country, but of course that’s only partially true. All of us surrender part of our freedom to government in order to enjoy the benefits of safety and order that government provides.
In America, we consent to that loss of freedom through elected legislatures. We give up our right to drive while drunk, for example, so the streets are safer. To keep the streets cleaner, we’ve agreed to give up our freedom to toss trash out the window.
Those are simple examples, but there are others. Nonprofit companies can’t endorse political candidates, a surrender of their free-speech rights for tax-free income. Broadcasters can face penalties for airing some obscenities, a clear abdication of free-speech rights, but they get the benefits of monopoly broadcast licenses in return.
Lawmakers have told Hobby Lobby it must make a similar trade. Its owners are quite free to worship in any way they choose, the government says, but in order to enjoy the benefits of corporate law — less personal liability, different tax structures — they must surrender some of their company’s religious freedom for the good of workers and the public.
Many find that trade deeply offensive. No person or company, they say, should be forced to violate their religious principles just to enjoy the benefits of government.
The court will decide if they’re right.
But let’s be clear: The government requires companies to do lots of things — pay a minimum wage, use a 40-hour week, keep the workplace safe, don’t hire children, don’t discriminate and more.
If Hobby Lobby’s argument prevails, companies can and will challenge those laws on freedom-of-religion grounds. Churches may demand the right to endorse candidates. The airwaves may get a bit more nasty.
So there’s a lot at stake.
Most of the time, politics revolves around how money is collected and spent for the things we want.
Sometimes, though, it’s about the always-shifting line between individual freedom and the rights of the group. Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will try again to draw that line.