Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Freedom of Religion, and other Rights

Soon after the United States Constitution was adopted in 1789, a series of amendments to the Constitution were introduced to the first United States Congress.  These amendments, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights were presented by James Madison as a way to alleviate the fears of those concerned with too much power being invested in the newly formed government.

Most people, including myself until a few moments ago, don't know that there were 12 original amendments proposed by Congress, 10 of which were ratified in the following years by the necessary 3/4 of the states, one which was later ratified as the 27th amendment in 2003, and one which technically is still up for ratification but is not receiving any active debate in any states.

There has been much debate concerning the application of the bill of rights in today's society, 220+ years after their adoption.  Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing a case involving the very first amendment, which is detailed below.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".

Before I enter the debate, it may be helpful for you to review those 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights.  I have provided a link below to Wikipedia which discuses a brief history, then the actual rights along with an explanation for each.

As I thought about this post, I planned to approach the topic as a discussion of how there are no rights that are sacrosanct, or put another way, one man's exercise of his freedoms should not violate those of another.  For instance, we all know many examples of limitations to the freedom of speech.  From not being allowed to cause a panic in a public place (by yelling fire), to noise restrictions in living areas where people are very close together, to revealing state secrets to the enemy, the freedom of speech is not inviolate.  

Even in respect to the freedom of religion, the first amendment states that neither extreme is permissible, either the prohibition of free exercise of religion or the establishment of any one religion over the others.  Of course, this leaves a lot of wiggle room in the middle which is where so many court decisions must fall.  In my view, the generic god, such as "in god we trust" on our money, the phrase "god bless America" which is on every politician's lips, or even "god bless you" when one sneezes, does not establish any one religion over others but merely reflects the opinion of the majority of citizens that the concept of god is acceptable to acknowledge.  It is the question of which god that creates the problems: The Christian God, The Jewish God, the Muslim God, the Buddhist God, the NO God?

There are also times when the exercise of one's religion should not be protected by the first amendment.  I think most people would agree that a parent's religious belief that the use of antibiotics violates the tenets of their religion should not excuse them from prosecution if they allow their child to die of an infection that would be easily treated.  In other words, the parent's rights to exercise their religion is negated when that action violates their child's right to life.

Question then, is there one right that should always be held to be the most important of the rights, one that always trumps the others?

Perhaps it is this one:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Problem.  This phrase is from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution or Bill of Rights.  I believe that each of us in fact, has been granted, at birth, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, each person.  Taken literally then, any action that denies one's "pursuit" should not be allowed. 

But when do we do when one person's pursuit violates the rights of another's pursuit.  It is easy to see that stealing a TV from ones neighbor might help one along in their pursuit of happiness, but hurts another, hence it is not protected.  But what about an employer who's religion forbids artificial methods of contraception, yet is being compelled by federal law to provide health insurance that includes birth control?  And what if that employer is a corporation, not an individual?

Anyone who has read my blog in the past, knows my deep disagreement with the Citizens United Ruling that equated contributions to political organizations as an exercise of free speech, even when that contribution comes from a corporation.  In other words, corporations are people too.  (I imagine that without that ruling, this case would not have been on the docket of the Supreme Court).

In the case of the company, Hobby Lobby, a family owned public company, they maintain that their religious beliefs do not allow artificial birth control methods, and that forcing them to provide this benefit as part of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, violates their freedom to exercise their religion.  Now, I am no legal expert, but I am pretty sure that not all religions ban birth control.  As a lapsed Catholic, I know that the Roman Catholic Church is against contraception but I am aware that their are many other Christian religions that have no such tenet in their dogma.  So, would granting  Hobby Lobby an exception give the Catholic religion a leg up on the others?  Would the Supreme Court also have to allow other exceptions to federal laws if those laws violate specific tenets of the Muslim religion or Buddhist religion?   Would those clamoring for the Supreme Court to rule for Hobby Lobby be just as vocal if it was a Muslim company looking for an exception to a law that they felt compromised their freedom of religion?

I have heard some say that if the employees don't like Hobby Lobby's religious beliefs, maybe they shouldn't work there.  If Hobby Lobby only hired people who shared their beliefs, would that be OK too?  Should they be allowed to ask religions affiliation on their job app?  What about people who work for a company for 15, 20 years, then experience a takeover by a company with "strong, religious beliefs".  Oh well, go find another job? 

Also, what about women who use contraception, especially the pill, for medical reasons in addition to or instead of for reasons of birth control.  Perhaps their medical professional has prescribed it to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, lessen the pain of menstruation or PMS, or regulate their period more evenly.  For all the yelping about the government interfering with the doctor-patient relationship, I am surprised at the willingness of some of these same people to allow one's employer to interfere in that dynamic.

To me, this a slam dunk.  But, knowing the make-up of today's Supreme Court, I can foresee them  ruling in a contrary way; especially since six of them are men.  As I have said before, and will say again, if men could get pregnant, there would be a lot of different perspectives on some of the topics of the day.

Let's hope that the men of the High Court are able to put aside their religion; 5 of them are Catholic, and rule on the behalf of the rest of us who are not stuck in the middle ages when it comes to birth control.  Let's also hope that they don't use their judicial power to expand the "religious" rights of corporations, just as they expanded corporations' individual rights in the Citizen United decision.


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