Hobby Lobby, pluralism and faith-based institutions

The months of June and July have been busy for the U.S. government and faith-based institutions. On June 30, the Supreme Court held that a federal law protected Hobby Lobby, a Christian, family-owned business, saying Hobby Lobby could be exempt from certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In some ways the decision was quite narrow because it interpreted a federal law that can be amended; it did not make a clear statement about what the U.S. Constitution requires.

The Court said that under the statute government must take the least restrictive approach possible if it is going to restrict religious liberty. With respect to healthcare, the government had a variety of alternatives to achieve its goal of allowing Hobby Lobby to be exempt from part of the ACA. Many of us believe that the Court was signaling the approach it is going to take in future cases when Constitutional, as opposed to statutory, debates come before it.

Earlier in June, in anticipation of a favourable Hobby Lobby decision, a number of other lawsuits by Christian bakers, florists and photographers were put into place. They say that their faith-based businesses should also be exempt from other laws that interfere with their religious beliefs. In particular, they do not want to serve same-sex customers planning weddings.

The coming decade will be filled with litigation as the courts take these cases one by one and decide whether government has used the least restrictive alternative to achieve its interests in these situations.

At the same time that Hobby Lobby was decided, over a hundred faith-based institutions, many in the Reformed tradition, signed letters asking President Obama to exempt them from an executive order that requires companies receiving federal contracts to have non-discrimination policies with respect to the LGBT community. On July 21st, Obama ignored those letters and signed the executive order without a full exemption for religious institutions. Lawsuits are already being planned.

The obligations of pluralism

Many Reformed Christians were celebratory about Hobby Lobby and perplexed by President Obama’s decision. To them, American law has always protected the self-identity of faith-based institutions and it simply makes good sense to allow faith-based schools, hospitals and businesses the room they need to live according to their beliefs while they are serving the common good of the community in a variety of ways. This is not how many other Americans see the situation, however: some are reacting with strong anger toward Christians, calling them selfish for asking for exemption from laws that are crafted to protect working women’s health or the employment of LGBT workers.

In my introductory column a year ago I wrote about a Christian view of government that advocated for pluralism of institutions and pluralism of worldview. I said that to the extent possible government should protect a variety of worldviews and allow the people in different institutions to advocate for the policies of those institutions. Within this framework, Christian pluralists say that these exemptions are in keeping with the Reformed principle of sphere sovereignty. Different people and organizations in God’s creation have the room to define themselves according to what they believe they are called to.

The trouble is that although I believe in this principle, I also think that it is not persuasive to many partly because we have been careless in thinking through the obligations of pluralism.

First, sphere sovereignty is not about autonomy for institutions. It includes a conversation about responsibility. People in the Reformed tradition have always criticized those who argue for autonomy and freedom over community, responsibility and connectedness. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and talk about what faith-based organizations owe the public they serve and the employees they hire. If a Christian baker refuses to serve a gay couple is that the same thing as refusing to serve an African American couple? How do we answer the hard questions related to the freedom to shape institutions according to our beliefs?

Second, if we are going to say that “worldview pluralism” should protect our unpopular decisions we should be the first in line to protect others. I see very little evidence of this in Reformed Christian communities, especially as it relates to public protection of LGBT folks. We should have been calling for legal protection of LGBT families from the very beginning. If our pluralism is mainly for ourselves it is not principled.

Hobby Lobby was an interesting case, but it left us with more questions than answers and more challenges to face. I think the Supreme Court will not look kindly on President Obama’s refusal to fully exempt faith-based institutions from his executive order, but I also think that before our Reformed institutions jump on the bandwagon to sue him, we should ask ourselves some tougher questions.


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