If you believe the liberal media, the Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is the most sweeping and revolutionary case since Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Of course they’re right, but not for the reasons they suppose. Nothing has changed, but then everything has changed. In the particulars, this was a very narrow ruling, but the legal landscape has been transformed. At the same time, liberal opponents of religious freedom have noticeably shifted their emphasis away from abortion and their tone has become more alarming and frantic. Liberals have gone too far in pushing an extreme anti-religious agenda and now they are losing the debate–and they know it.
In the immediate future, yesterday’s decision will change absolutely nothing for the employees of Hobby Lobby or Conestoga Wood Specialties. They will still have access to contraception just as they did before ObamaCare became law. Assuming the Obama Administration follows the guidance of the Court, the employees will also not have a co-pay for the abortion-inducing drugs and devices which were the subject of the case. Instead, we’ll all pay for it through higher medical bills. This has not changed. The main result of the decision will be to weaken the ability of the government to conscript corporations into the service of ideological goals through capricious regulations and unfunded mandates—although the government still wields vast powers to threaten and stifle religious expression.
Yesterday, a three-judge panel for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (including two Obama appointees) took a positive step to further curtail those powers by granting an emergency injunction just hours before crushing penalties were set to go into effect for the Eternal Word Television Network for refusing to complete the Kafka-esque “Form 700” which presents religious groups with a Catch-22 of signing the form to prove that they object to signing the form. As the main Catholic television outlet in the United States, EWTN has an explicitly religious mission and was founded by a nun from the Order of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, Mother Mary Angelica of the Assumption. If the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act do not apply to EWTN, they are meaningless.
Even though little has changed in practice, this marks a major shift in the legal fortunes of Catholic non-profits which carry out an explicitly religious mission. Prior to the Hobby Lobby decision, other appeals by groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor and Notre Dame University have met with more resistance and setbacks, but it seems that now there is new hope that Catholic colleges, charities, and hospitals will be able to obtain the same blanket exemptions as “official” Church organizations, which is after all an absurd and artificial distinction as we are all called to carry out the Church’s mission, whether in holy orders, consecrated religious life, or as laypeople.
In a kinder, gentler age, liberals would have looked at all of this with a haughty condescension. As recently as the 2004 election, John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for the presidency said, “I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist.” However, liberals and small-c catholics like John Kerry tend to forget that the First Amendment works both ways, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Still, John Kerry’s disingenuousness is nothing compared to the 2012 election when delegates to the Democratic National Convention booed and jeered when the seemingly innocuous phrase “God-given potential” was put to a vote. Today’s Democratic Party is openly hostile to religious expression and we need the First Amendment more than ever.
We can take heart that in the frenzy of manufactured outrage and puerile bullying, liberals have shifted their focus away from abortion and their tone has taken on a new urgency. They know that abortion is a losing issue. Even though the Hobby Lobby case was about drugs and devices which can be used to induce an abortion, everyone on the left is talking about the pill. Liberals argue that the Hobby Lobby ruling will “roll back the clock” on women’s rights, but to the contrary, liberals are rolling back the clock on their rhetoric back to the 1960’s. The great irony is that their defeat yesterday was self-inflicted. Bill Clinton, who retains tremendous power and influence in the Democratic Party, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in 1993.
Catholic organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and EWTN don’t want to force their beliefs on anyone, but they would like to be able to practice their own faith as Catholics have done for centuries. This desire for continuity and humility contrasts with the tone of liberal objections ranging from paranoia to obscenity. If the Little Sisters of the Poor and EWTN prevail in their appeals, little will change for them. Catholic charities will continue to evangelize and to share the beauty of the Catholic faith with the world. What will change is that Catholics will have the freedom to repair the grievous wounds to the sanctity of human life and of the family which our culture has sustained over the last century through the power and witness of living our lives as worthy examples of our faith in all that we do.