Do Recent Legal Trends Present A Bias Against Faith?

gavelThis week, our discussion will be led by Mr. Jared Watson, an attorney who practices real estate and corporate law in Lake Charles at Robicheaux, Mize, Wadsack, and Richardson, LLC. Dedicated to his Catholic faith, Jared has prepared a short introduction to some recent legal trends in the United States. We will discuss what these trends might reveal about the way our culture views faith.


On the topic of Religious Freedom, there have been at least two recent United States cases noteworthy for discussion.  We thought that these two cases could work as “springboards” into wider-ranging topics relevant to all of us, not just lawyers.

The first is the case of Hobby Lobby v. Kathleen Sebelius et al. out of the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The second is the New Mexico Supreme Court case of Elane Photography v. Willock.

Hobby Lobby deals with the case of the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby stores and a bookstore chain through closely held corporations.  Evangelical Christians, the Greens provide health insurance to their around 13,000 employees.  However, under the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” the Greens are obliged to cover contraceptives and abortifacients.  In a partial victory for the Greens, under the merits of the case, the court ruled that the “contraception mandate” under Obamacare substantially burdens “the religious values” they attempt to follow.   According the court, the Greens assert, among their “sincere beliefs,” a “belief that human life begins when sperm fertilizes an egg;” that they “believe” they would be “facilitating harm to human beings” if they cover those drugs in their plans. [Emphasis added.]  Further, the court notes that Hobby Lobby drew a line at providing coverage for drugs or devices “they consider to induce abortions.”

In Elane Photography, a New Mexico couple in the photography business declined to photograph the “wedding” of two women; the business equally wouldn’t photograph two men or two women holding hands or engaged in gestures that marked a homosexual relation.  The court stating that they declined due to their belief that taking such pictures violates their religious beliefs.  In doing so, they were sued and lost under the New Mexico Human Rights Act which prohibited businesses from discriminating people on the basis of their “sexual orientation” despite arguments of free speech and freedom of religion.

Discussion Questions

  1. The arguments raised by the Christian parties in both cases—are they merely just “beliefs”?  What does “belief” connote?  Or what about the word “values”?
    • In Hobby Lobby, the court says that Hobby Lobby ‘s position is similar to a U.S. Supreme Court case, Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, wherein Thomas, a Jehovah’s Witness, was willing to work in a foundry turning out metal for use in tanks, but declined at working on the turrets for the tanks.  It was hard to see the difference in principle, but the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t worry itself with those questions.  To the court in Thomas, if it’s made based upon his religious beliefs the court wasn’t going to interfere.   Is Hobby Lobby (or even Elane Photography) really similar to Thomas? Is the position of Hobby Lobby or Elane Photography like the kosher butcher challenging a regulation mandating non-kosher butchering practices?  What are the grounds for challenging the mandate? Do some parties have better or more arguments than others?
  2. Can arguments on merely “sincerely held beliefs” lead to trouble?  If the argument of Hobby Lobby or Elane is merely about “sincerely held beliefs” or tastes or preferences, is it easier for the opposing party to take the supposed higher, moral ground?  Think of the moral buzzwords around today:  equality, fairness, toleration, liberty, justice.
  3. For the Hobby Lobby case, does relegating ourselves to the merely “sincerely held beliefs” argument for religious freedom contribute to the view that their grievance is just another instance of “faith” trying to quash “health?”  Is that confusing two subjects, “religion” and “health,” as if the Church were arguing that the Food & Drug Administration should acknowledge the Hypostatic Union of Christ?  Is faith and health not compatible?
  4. If you haven’t fully addressed it with your group yet, if you were representing Hobby Lobby or Elane Photography, how would you argue your case to a religious skeptic?
  5. In the U.S. Supreme Court Establishment Clause case called Lee v. Weisman (1992), we get a picture of the court’s substantive (in contrast to legal) view of religion.  Having a non-sectarian prayer by a rabbi at a middle school graduation was ruled unconstitutional.  Their position was that religion is irrational (in addition to being divisive and other things).  But can’t religion be reasonable?  Can’t your religion be more reasonable than others?  Consider Pope Benedict’s comment in his Regensburg Address:  “Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature,” for “in the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God.”
  6. Let’s step back a bit.  With these court cases in mind, we see a very narrow, negative view of religion; one where it appears that religion is barely tolerable, very irrational and divisive, and that is undermines human achievement.  So, imagine if you were asked to write a new Constitution, and you can’t merely appeal to the present Constitution to ground you claim, would you include the First Amendment allowing for freedom of religion?  But why?  What is so special about religion, its beliefs, and its practices, that require the Constitution to protect those of its citizens that embrace them?  On the other hand, if religion and its practices are of such importance to the political community, why would your Constitution prohibit the establishment of a religion?
  7. Consider the following two quotes and discuss the differences.  The first is from the concurring opinion of the Elane Photography case.  According to Justice Bosson, the Christian couple needs to bear the following in mind when operating their business:
    • “In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs, so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different.  That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people.  That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship.”
    • The second is from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen:  “If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live.”
  8. With what you’ve already discussed in mind, consider the following quote from one devil to another, from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters:
    • “It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s [God’s] clutches.  That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it.  They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” of “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”.  Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.  Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous – that it is the philosophy of the future.  That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”
  9. Regarding losing these some of these religious liberty arguments in the public square, Ryan T. Anderson states that:  “It isn’t surprising that we’re not getting it right. Part of the blame lies with us.  If government doesn’t respect religious liberty and the rights of conscience, perhaps it’s because I don’t exercise my religious liberty as I ought, that I don’t follow my conscience as I should.  If I don’t take my faith and conscience seriously, it’s no wonder that the government doesn’t either.”  Do you agree?  How can we as Catholics get government and society at large to see the truth of our religion and thus our religious arguments?

Further Reading

  1.  “Religious and Secular Arguments”
  2.  “Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion”
  3.  Pope Benedict XVI: “Faith, Reason and the University:  Memories and Reflections” (aka “The Regensburg Address”)
  4.  “Religious Freedom in Search of its Argument.”
  5.  “Calling and Witness, Holiness and Truth”