Hobby Lobby tries to craft religious rights

Written By By NEIL STEINBERG Posted: 04/29/2014, 12:21am

The arc of history bends toward freedom. If you want to understand what has happened over the past decades and centuries, what is happening now, keep that premise in mind. In the past, people were controlled by institutions, which dictated the details of their lives, telling them how to worship, work, dress, think, behave.

Then gradually, individuals stood up and claimed the right to make those decisions.

Look, to take one example from Chicago history, at Pullman, the South Side neighborhood that once was the company town for the Pullman Palace Car Co., which manufactured luxury railroad sleeping cars.

If you worked for Pullman, you lived in Pullman’s town by Pullman’s rules. George Pullman chose the books in the library you could read; he decided what church you could attend. He didn’t like drinking, so residents could not buy liquor. The only bar was at the Florence Hotel, named for his daughter — the idea being that visitors might want to drink, but his workers could not.

Few today would cast an envious eye on Pullman. We in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook don’t say: “You know, Allstate is big here. Let’s let them decide what kind of birth control we use.” That wouldn’t fly.

Yet, right now, in 2014, a case is being discussed by the Supreme Court whether Hobby Lobby, a chain of 500 arts and crafts stores, can decide for its 13,000 employees what kind of birth control they use. The company is required to provide health care under the Affordable Care Act and is trying to opt out because some employees would make decisions that are not in keeping with their employer’s religious beliefs. That is a given in most places, but the owners of Hobby Lobby consider it oppression.

In case you think this matters only in far regions, there are 23 Hobby Lobby stores, plus one opening soon, within 50 miles of Chicago, and if the law goes in the company’s favor, it could affect not just employees but everyone with a boss.

The company is owned by zealous Christians, who argue that by letting their employees have full health care coverage, which includes such contraception as IUDs and morning-after pills, which the company owners view as a kind of abortion, it would violate the company’s religious rights.

The company’s religious rights. Versus the rights of the people employed by it.

Wonder how the case will work out?

Repeat after me: The arc of history bends toward freedom. (A familiar ring to that; maybe I’m channeling Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That too).

Funny. If the issue were something far less significant — say, the type of toothpaste Hobby Lobby workers could use under their dental plan — there would be clarity, and the case would have been laughed out of court. But the issue becomes more clouded because it involves a religious scruple — abortion or, in this case, contraceptives — and because the restraint is being forced on women, a group whose rights are still open to debate.

The women on the court see this clearly. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, could not employers object to any medical procedure: blood transfusions, say, or immunization?

The Hobby Lobby lawyer said the courts would evaluate each case, which is no doubt true, and a glimpse of chaos.

“So one religious group could opt out of this and another religious group could opt out of that, and nothing would be uniform,” Justice Elena Kagan observed.

Exactly. There are many religions in this country. Some people are so in thrall to their own faith they forget that and try to claim that the nation should favor one, invariably their own, oblivious that to favor one would be to favor all. If a Muslim-owned company tried to insist its female employees wear veils, Hobby Lobby would respond in vibrating horror. Yet it would blithely force its own will on employees. Hypocrites.

You don’t have to go back to Pullman’s day to find companies dictating the details of employees’ lives. If a flight attendant grew too old, or gained weight, or had children, an airline would simply fire her.

Little by little, freedoms were won — first for men and, then, lately, obviously only partially, for women. The battle continues.

This case is really very simple to decide. Ask this question: Should individuals be allowed to make their own religious choices? Or should their employers choose for them?

A toughie, I know. It’s so hard to give others the freedom you demand for yourself.

How does this end? Hobby Lobby loses. Maybe not this case, now, but eventually. Because, as I said at the start, the arc of history bends toward freedom.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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