On the Hobby Lobby case and the meaning of “rights”

I didn’t manage a post yesterday, despite my Lenten goal. Owing to a change in my circumstances, it looks like it’ll be tough for me to find time to post on Thursdays for the next couple of months (which takes us right past the end of Lent and out of my Lenten posting scheme anyway). I’ll do what I can the other weekdays, though, including today.

Today I want to address an issue that’s been bugging me for years now and that enjoyed some time in the public spotlight this week. On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. This case (along with a couple of related cases) revolves around whether privately owned for-profit companies can, on the basis of religious freedom, hold themselves exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that they provide their employees with health insurance that includes coverage for certain kinds of birth control. The ACA mandates that healthcare plans cover some twenty forms of birth control, four of which Hobby Lobby’s Christian owners find morally objectionable because they can in some cases prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and thus extinguish a human life that had already been conceived. Key questions include whether the birth control mandate places an undue burden on Hobby Lobby’s owners’ religious freedom; whether the government has a compelling interest in refusing to grant an exception; whether exceptions already granted to religious nonprofits should extend to for-profit companies owned by religious people; and whether and to what degree the religious convictions of a company’s owners constitute a basis for claiming that the company is entitled to religious freedom in certain matters.

There are important arguments to be made for both sides, even assuming cooler heads prevail (which, in the Supreme Court, sometimes they do). Meanwhile, in the commentariat and the blogosphere, some of Hobby Lobby’s supporters are making a more apocalyptic mountain out of this case than it really is, and some of its opponents are doing the same. A few articles, like this one, are trying to defuse some of the tension by correcting false assumptions by one or both sides, but on the whole the case has passions running high. In any case, a ruling is expected sometime in June, so we’ll have to wait until then to learn the Court’s decision.

But what bugs me about this case, and about plenty of other issues over the last several years, is one of the assumptions made by supporters of the government’s side. That assumption is that securing a person’s right to something–in this case, coverage for certain kinds of birth control–means using the coercive power of government to force a third party–in this case, a private employer–to provide that thing. The government is saying, in effect, “Your employees have the right to a certain kind of health coverage, and we’ve decided that it’s your responsibility to provide them with that coverage, so we’re going to make sure you do so; you don’t get to deny them their rights by refusing to provide coverage that meets our standards.”

Now, note that Hobby Lobby isn’t trying to prevent its employees from buying other health insurance, on their own, that covers the forms of birth control for which Hobby Lobby’s owners don’t want to pay. Nor is Hobby Lobby trying to prevent its employees from going to the store and buying those forms of birth control out of their own pockets. In other words, Hobby Lobby isn’t keeping its employees from getting access to those kinds of birth control. No, Hobby Lobby is arguing that it shouldn’t have to use its money to subsidize, through employee health insurance, forms of birth control to which its owners have a religiously-based moral objection. But Hobby Lobby’s opponents are still saying that its refusal to do so constitutes an attack on its employees’ right to coverage that includes those things.

Sorry, since when is a “right” defined as “something that must be provided for you by someone else”? Nobody argues that the right to bear arms means that the government–or your local sporting-goods store, for that matter–is required to provide you with a gun. Nobody argues that the right to free speech means that a newspaper is required to print your column. Defining these things as “rights” just means that the government can’t prevent you from doing these things on your own (though even then, courts have ruled that in some circumstances, like slander and libel, it can). In fact, several amendments in the Bill of Rights specifically enumerate things the government cannot do to you, like quarter soldiers in your house, search and seize your stuff unreasonably, or force you to testify against yourself.

So how did we get to the point as a society where we’re using the term “rights” to mean things that we want the government to provide or force others to provide for us? And how can we get back to using the term “rights” to mean simply freedoms that the government and others don’t get to take away from us? Because it’s long past time we did.

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