Tel Aviv and Hobby Lobby: What Religious Freedom Entails

Today has been a big news day for legislating religious freedom. First, Tel Aviv’s City Council voted to allow some grocery and convenience stores to open on the Sabbath. According to reports, the mayor, Ron Huldai, cited the principle of religious freedom:

“We are all Jews, and Judaism has many faces. I am a proud Jew who spends his Shabbat differently than other Jews. Our job is to allow everyone to live with respect and love. The principle that led to this bill is keeping the Tel Aviv spirit, one that cares for the Shabbat as the day of rest, as a social value in the Jewish State, and also allows for the provision of services and the freedom for everyone to use this day of rest as they wish.” — Ron Huldai, as reported in The Forward article Tel Aviv Council Votes to Allow Shops to Stay Open on Shabbat

The amendment must still be approved by the Minister of the Interior, but it reflects a conception of religious freedom as that which allows the most people to follow their conscience as possible.

Today was also the day the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the case which will decide whether for-profit corporations can be exempted from providing insurance coverage for contraceptive care in their basic health plans, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, based on their owners’ religious beliefs. (Religious non-profit organizations, like churches, can file for an exemption and their employees get coverage directly from the insurance companies.) I won’t go into the ridiculousness of many of Hobby Lobby’s arguments that contraception is a societal evil. Those are important issues that I don’t think are properly addressed in this medium. Instead I want to focus more broadly on the concept of freedom of religion and religious practice.

The parallels between the situations are striking.  As far as I know, no religion requires someone to shop on the Sabbath, just as no religion I’m aware of requires women to use oral contraceptives, the morning after pill or an IUD. However, many religions permit all of those activities. There are religious Jews who shop on Saturdays and religious Christians who have sex without wanting to procreate.

A blanket ban on allow grocery stores to open on the Sabbath when some people want to shop puts larger stores (who can afford to open in contravention of the law and pay the fines) at an advantage and takes money and business away from religious shop owners whose style of observance allows them to operate their store on Saturdays. The draw-back here is that business owners who observe the Sabbath in such a way that they can’t open on Saturdays will likely lose business to their Sabbath-open competitors, which is likely what the blanket ban was instituted to avoid. They can only hope that similarly observant people will prefer their stores to their competitors for ideological reasons, in the way that some people choose to buy local or organic produce, although it isn’t always as convenient.

Allowing Hobby Lobby to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ insurance plans legitimizes their style of Christianity over other forms that allow contraception or encourage non-procreative sex or family planning. (It also places this style of Christianity above styles of non-Christian religious practice that allow or encourage the same thing.)

In both cases, we have to figure out what to do when one group’s religious practice might infringe upon activities another group’s practice permits. In Israel, where there is no right to shop on Saturdays, we are only considering how to structure things so they are the least unfair to the most people. If big stores are going to open anyway and take customers from small stores, perhaps it’s best to allow small stores to open as well, although we should also consider making it too hard for big stores to open. In the States, however, where Americans were given a legal right to contraceptive coverage from their employers by the Affordable Care Act, we must also examine the relationship between the state and religion. Would a decision for Hobby Lobby privilege a brand of conservative Christianity over other religions? I think it would. I think it is here reasonable for the US government to require a conservative Christian running a business to include contraceptive cover in its employee health coverage, because that is what the law requires.

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Social Change Isn’t Inevitable, or: Sometimes People Change Their Minds

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how American Millenials’ support for same-sex marriage is a sign that marriage equality for LGBT people in the US is just a matter of time. Millenials are a larger group than Baby Boomers, larger than Gen Xers, way larger than the silent generation[1]. In ten years, we’ll be making enough money that politicians will listen to us. We’ll be having families we’ll be raising to support LGBT rights. We just have to wait for our parents and their parents to get too old to vote, and we’re golden.


Unless the reason the majority of young people support gay marriage is a product of our being young. I hope we don’t grow out of seeing LGBT people as full people deserving of marital happiness, and not “sick” with some disease or spiritual affliction. I think that’s a good idea that will stand the test of time. But I don’t know that it will. Most of the hippies got a haircut and got married. Most of them are still married.[2] Or we might just care less as we get older and same-sex marriage will take a back seat, for many of us, to student loan reform or a broader social safety net. The issues that fire us up today might not in twenty years.

Unless, before our children come of age, an intermediate generation with opposing values controls the culture. Free Love was big among Baby Boomers when they were my age, but before my generation could overwhelm the cultural consciousness, a bunch of GenXers started whining about hookup culture.

Unless the 30% of Millenials who oppose same-sex marriage have more children who oppose same-sex marriage more firmly than our own support it. We know young people make up their own minds–that’s how our generation got to support same-sex marriage in greater numbers than our parents’–and are influenced by their peers. That influence could work in either direction. And opponents of same-sex marriage might be more willing to become single-issue voters. I don’t know. None of us does.

So, while it’s very encouraging that young people support same-sex marriage, it’s not a sign of inevitable victory. Just as “feminism” has become a dirty word among some people, being part of or an ally to the LGBT community might fall from being the only stance a socially liberal person could take to being a controversial subject. Feminism wasn’t “settled in the ’60s” as my father always wishes, and we can’t say that same-sex marriage will be settled in ’20s, or stay settled in the ’40s. These are cultural battles we have to fight every day, and probably will have to fight every day, probably forever.

From the CIA World Factbook

[2] It was hard to find a good breakdown of the US divorce rate statistics, but StatsCan has some very good graphs showing the divorce rate and average age at divorce for the past 30 years. It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions, but if you look at both of those numbers, you’ll find that in the ’80s, there were probably at least 1/2 of divorces coming from generations older than the Boomers and by 2008, at least half were from generations younger than the boomers. (The other possibility is that, in the 80s, only older Boomers got divorced and that, 30 years later, only the tail end of the generation was getting divorced.) If Boomers got divorced at rates higher than younger generations, you would expect a much greater rise in the average age at time of divorce over 30 years than the 5 years we observe.

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