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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