Paul Greenberg

Just in time for the Fourth of July, the Supreme Court of the United States struck a blow for religious liberty. Specifically, the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. By the narrowest of margins, five justices to four, it held that Americans who choose to start a business need not check their religious convictions at the door. But only if it's a "closely held" business, a definition that will surely lead to some equally interesting cases in the future.

Whether this is only a glancing blow for religious liberty or one whose ramifications ripple out and lead to a new birth of freedom, only time and further precedents may tell. For this decision is not just a legal one but part of an ongoing cultural battle, a Kulturkampf, to determine just how tolerant of religious belief -- and practice -- America remains.

This week's term-ending ruling could affect only a few companies whose owners refuse to leave their moral convictions behind when they form a family corporation. Or it could affect many more, even the whole culture. For the IRS defines a closely held company as one in which a majority of the stock is owned by five or fewer individuals, who often turn out to be related. According to one study -- by the Copenhagen Business School back in 2000 -- nine out of 10 American companies are closely held.

But as has become all too clear of late, the IRS has a way of ignoring its own rules when an administration's politics demand it, and some obedient Lois Lerner can always be found do the dirty work. In her case, by enforcing this administration's own Enemies List, to borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon's corrupt and corrupting time.

There's no doubt that the owners of the corporations involved in this week's landmark decision were following their religious convictions. Hobby Lobby, for sterling example. That company closes its doors on Sundays so its employees can have time for church and family on the sabbath. And its mission statement commits the company to "honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles." But in this modern, enlightened, neo-pagan America, them's fightin' words.

At least they were fighting words to the four dissenting justices in this case, who sounded as strident as ever as they warned that granting such exemptions for no better reason than religious conviction would undermine the administration's whole, wide-sweeping health-care program, aka Obamacare.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.