Should people with strong religious convictions prepare to violate their beliefs or steer clear of corporate activity in the United States?
Should Hobby Lobby, owned by evangelical Christians who opposed having to pay for coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, have shut down its 575 outlets across the U.S. rather than challenging the federal government’s contraception mandate in court?
Absurd as it sounds, Senator Chuck Schumer seems to be proposing just that. Schumer was one of the backers of a bill, mercifully blocked in the Senate for now, that would have overridden the Supreme Court’s protection of Hobby Lobby’s religious freedom.
Some commentators have summed up what Schumer said after the Hobby Lobby ruling this way: your faith or your company. Unfortunately, that synopsis of what the senator said is neither flip nor off base.
"We wouldn’t tell the owners of Hobby Lobby to convert to a different religion or disobey their religion," the New York Democrat said. "But we don’t say that they have to open up a company. And go sell toys, or hobby kits.” For good measure, Schumer added, “We don’t have any [Hobby Lobby outlets] in New York, so I don’t know exactly what they sell.”
So is this religious liberty in the United States circa 2014, as seen by one of the most prominent members of the political class: you don't have to convert (hey, thanks!) but nor should you count on being able to conduct your businesses in accordance with your consciences? Like the English Catholics who were precluded from going to universities or engaging in certain activities, including serving in Parliament, evangelicals and other devout religious citizens in the U.S. should, as Schumer sees it, not be able to undertake certain economic activities unless they do so with the knowledge that they may have to sell out or compromise on the matter of their religious liberty if the government comes up with some new regulation.
Schumer is a denizen of the secular Northeast where evangelical Christians are in some spots as exotic as crepe paper and other hobby supplies, but one would hope that even sophisticated Manhattanites would recognize that this puts our country on a troubling path, in which the government has the right to make it difficult for the devout to fully participate in our society while observing their religious views.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Hobby Lobby, unable to get a hearing before the Supreme Court, simply had stopped selling toys and hobby kits rather than doing something that its owners, the Green family, believe to be profoundly morally culpable. Stranger things have happened.
If Hobby Lobby had followed the Schumer Diktat and shut down it’s $3 billion dollar enterprise, 23,000 Hobby Lobby employees would have lost their jobs. Being unemployed, especially in this economy, is arguably a more dire situation than being without free access to one of the four contraception drugs that the Greens objected to providing (they have no problem with the other sixteen on the FDA-approved list for insurance coverage).
Let loose into the current economy, many of Hobby Lobby's employees might have a hard time replacing their lost jobs. That's because, in part on account of the Green family’s religious convictions, a gig at Hobby Lobby pays better than many of the jobs the Obama administration brags about adding whenever there is the slightest uptick in a jobs report. In 2013, Hobby Lobby raised its lowest wage to $14 for full-time employees and $9.50 for part-time employees. Around 16,000 Hobby Lobby employees are full-time.
Unlike all too many other businesses, Hobby Lobby is growing. It expects to add new locations—and with these new locations new jobs—this year. No one is compelled to work for the company of course, but many workers are not only attracted to these higher-than-typical wages, but also with the comparatively generous benefit package Hobby Lobby offers. Though they lack the full complement of contraceptive coverage, full-time Hobby Lobby employees are eligible to enroll in a generous benefit plan that includes medical, dental, prescription drugs, plus with long-term disability and life insurance.
Hobby Lobby offers a 401(k) plan with a generous match from the company. The headquarters boasts an on-site health clinic open to all full-time employees and family members who are covered under the company’s health insurance plan.
It wouldn’t just be those out-of-work former Hobby Lobby employees affected by the closing of the company. The company’s suppliers would also feel an impact. Since Hobby Lobby stocks around 65,000 items, we can assume quite a few of the company’s vendors would suffer, too.
Schumer, of course, is probably bluffing—he figures that people like the Greens will come to their senses and buckle before doing anything as drastic as going out of business for the sake of their consciences. He shouldn’t be so sure. Some business people would see the wisdom of bending to regulations they originally opposed; but others would not. Religious conviction has a way of confounding the secular.
Religious liberty is a bedrock of American tradition, and there is simply no need to close the doors of the economy to religious employers. Rather than cavalierly suggesting that corporations such as Hobby Lobby have no place in the United States, Schumer could better serve his constituents by trying to lure a Hobby Lobby into New York. I’m told the city could use some new businesses.