If you haven’t yet Ross Douthat’s column in today’s New York Times, then you need to. He describes better than anyone else the fundamental constitutional issue at stake in the recent controversy regarding Chick-fil-a. He rightly recognizes that the issue is much bigger than whether or not Chick-fil-a gets to open stores in Boston and Chicago. At bottom, we are talking about the meaning of religious liberty as it is spelled out in the Constitution of the United States. He writes:
The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion. It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.
Secularists increasingly seek to limit religious liberty to what happens within the four walls of the church or within the privacy of one’s home. But the Constitution actually guarantees more than that. It guarantees Americans the right to practice their faith in the public space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. This freedom cannot be reduced to the way in which services are conducted for one hour a week at your local church. It’s bigger than that.
From mayors trying to ban Chick-fil-a from their cities to federal mandates forcing religious hospitals to purchase insurance coverage for abortions, they all have one thing in common—the idea that freedom of religion only covers what religious people do in their own private worship. In this view, any public expression of one’s faith can be abridged by the government. This is the view that is on the rise right now among secularists, and it is patently unconstitutional.
I want to add one more little wrinkle to this that I don’t think Douthat mentioned vis a vis Obamacare’s abortion mandate. There are businesses across the country—like Chick-fil-a—that are owned by Christians who want to run their businesses according to the norms of their faith. Many of them do not want to be forced to purchase insurance coverage for abortions. That means that the exemption from the Obamacare abortion mandate must not only apply to churches and other religious entities (like Catholic hospitals, universities, etc.). It must also apply to any religious business owner who wishes to run his business according to the dictates of his faith. In other words, the exemption must be wider than almost anyone is contemplating right now if it is to uphold religious liberty.
On that note, two days ago a federal judge issued a ruling that appears to have flown completely under the radar. The Hill reports that a federal judge ruled that a Colorado-based company does not have to comply with the Obama administration’s birth-control mandate because of the employer’s religious beliefs. The business in question is not a religious entity. It’s an HVAC manufacturer. It’s simply that its owner has religious objections to the contraceptive mandate. The broad exemption this business has sued for is exactly what I’m talking about, and this could have wide-ranging implications for the mandate if it is upheld. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post has more here.