Does religious freedom entitle secular business owners to exemptions from generally applicable laws that offend their religious beliefs? In a theocracy, the obvious answer is "yes" (or the question is moot) for business owners whose beliefs conform to the beliefs of officialdom. In a secular democracy, the obvious answer is "no" or "not in general." We would have few generally applicable laws if individuals could declare themselves and their commercial enterprises exempt from any laws that offended their religious beliefs.
This is a fairly simple, basic civic principle. But it's now a source of considerable controversy, because of religious objections to contraception, exacerbated by partisan objections to the Affordable Care Act.
The Obama Administration persists in trying to resolve battles over the ACA's contraceptive care requirements, but all its efforts seem destined to fail. Religiously affiliated, not-for-profit institutions (like Catholic hospitals and universities) will be exempt from the contraceptive-care mandate pursuant to the administration's latest compromise. Free contraceptive coverage would, instead, be provided directly by insurers. (Churches have always enjoyed an exemption.)
But this proposal may not satisfy church-affiliated not-for-profits, and it does not address the concerns of secular business owners who consider contraception sinful: They will still be required to cover contraception. "Business owners don't have any religious rights in connection with their businesses," Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund laments.
That is clumsily phrased but, in this context, it's essentially true and generally appropriate. If withholding religious exemptions from business owners seems unfair (or a violation of religious freedom), consider the alternatives. There's no principled justification for privileging a belief in the sinfulness of contraception over other religious beliefs that conflict with other civil laws. (Usually, not even religious groups seek faith-based exemptions from criminal laws. The Catholic Church does not claim that religious freedom includes the freedom to molest children.)
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