Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Douthat on Religious Liberty and the Social Contributions of Religious Organizations

Ross Douthat in the NY Times observes that the Hobby Lobby owners' corporate conscience has led to some good things for workers, including  a high minimum full-time wage and Sundays off. (Wait: why does Hobby Lobby get to impose its Christian beliefs on its customers who might have a need to do their shopping on Sundays?) Of course, there's a quarrel over how consistently socially responsible Hobby Lobby is. But as Douthat says, "this isn’t just a point about the company’s particular virtues"; most of it is about religious organizations that serve those in need:

The entire conflict between religious liberty and cultural liberalism has created an interesting situation in our politics: The political left is expending a remarkable amount of energy trying to fine, vilify and bring to heel organizations — charities, hospitals, schools and mission-infused businesses — whose commitments they might under other circumstances extol.

Most of the commenters, unsurprisingly, are having none of it. But, as always ... it's the open-minded middle you have to reach. Not Times commenters.

The religious organizations that reach out beyond their church's members--and as a result are increasingly threatened with regulation conflicting with their beliefs--want "freedom to serve," in the words of the Catholic bishops' religious-freedom fortnight that just ended. Yes, there are tough issues about ensuring full participation of GLBT people, women, and others in society. But the resolution of those issues has to make room for full participation of faith-based service organizations as well.

An excerpt from my own work on "progressive arguments for religious organizational freedom," which fleshes out the same argument with supporting evidence (footnotes omitted):

[I]t is ironic and mistaken for progressives to deny or minimize religious-freedom protection for faith-based service organizations, as the original HHS exemption did. Works of justice, mercy, and service lie at the core of many religious faiths, but especially those that describe themselves as “progressive.” These works also rank among the features that progressives, religious or not, value most in religious organizations.

As an illustrative text, I take the comments of President Obama himself, from a widely reported speech during his first presidential campaign. He recounted how

     "I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

     "There are millions of Americans who share [this] view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. . . . [W]hile these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all."

Ironically, however, these features—“a commitment to [the] community,” beyond just praying or preaching, by groups “who’ve come together around a common faith” but who “work[ ] to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all”—are precisely the ones that HHS originally proposed should disqualify an organization from the exemption.

Obama’s description of the nature, motivation, and value of faith-based service organizations suggests two broad reasons for accommodating them. The first is civil libertarian: their service activity is a core exercise of religion, one that presumptively merits accommodation through the First Amendment or legislative measures. The second reason sounds in considerations of civic virtue: such organizations make important contributions to civic goals and social capital that progressives should, and that our religious-freedom tradition does, value.


Berg, Thomas | Permalink