Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its highly anticipated decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) “applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held for-profit corporations” such as Hobby Lobby, Mardel, and Conestoga Wood Specialties. In practical terms, this means that the government cannot require the pro-life Christian owners of those companies to cover abortion-inducing drugs in their employee healthcare plans.
This is a notable win for religious liberty and should be celebrated as such. It respects the sincerely held convictions of the Green and Hahn families, who own Hobby Lobby/Mardel and Conestoga, respectively. It validates the wisdom of RFRA, which provides a common-sense way to balance the rights of religious persons with the needs of government policy. And it recognizes that families who incorporate their businesses do not surrender their religious freedom at the door of corporate headquarters.
The decision is also proving to be controversial and politically polarizing, however. In 1993, an overwhelming majority of Congress passed RFRA, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law to great acclaim. Today, given the deepening ideological split between our nation’s two main political parties, there is a good chance that some lawmakers will attempt either to amend RFRA or repeal it outright because they do not like the Court’s decision. More ominously, there is a small but increasingly vocal group of legal scholars who question why the Constitution should protect religious freedom at all.
This controversy is unfortunate. Religious freedom has been called “the first freedom,” not merely because of its leading position in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but also because what the American Founders called “the sacred rights of conscience” are so fundamental to all rights. Religious freedom is the right of all people, no matter what their religion, no matter how unpopular their views may be. The fact that some lawmakers may want to amend or repeal RFRA’s statutory protection of religious freedom because they don’t like the Court’s application of it in this case is deeply troubling and violates the spirit of tolerance that underlies the motive for recognizing the religious freedom of others.
For these reasons, together with leaders of other religious organizations, I have signed an open letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives urging them to block any effort to amend or repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I encourage you to write your senator or representative and make the same request.
There are many doctrines that divide religious people in the U.S., but we should be united in our conviction that American society needs more protection for religious freedom, not less. This is especially true when the increasing governmental regulation of all areas of life impinges—unwittingly or not—on the faith and lives of our increasingly diverse fellow citizens.
I close with an exhortation from Scripture: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16, NIV). Freedom is never an excuse for immorality, injustice, or incivility. Rather, it is always an opportunity to love our neighbor and seek the common good of our community.
May God bless you richly!
George O. Wood
George O. Wood is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (USA) and chairman of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship. A member of the California State Bar since 1991, he has been licensed to practice law before the United States Supreme Court since 2004.
The text of the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., is available online here, at the Supreme Court’s website.
Background on the case is available here, at the website of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Green and Hahn families in their respective cases.
An interview about the Hobby Lobby case with George O. Wood, Assemblies of God legal counsel Richard R. Hammar, and Becket Fund attorney Joshua D. Hawley—can be viewed here.
For more on the Assemblies of God’s official position on contraception, abortion, and reproductive technologies, read “The Sanctity of Human Life: Abortion and Reproductive Issues,” which is available here.
The letter George O. Wood cosigned with the leaders of other religious organizations is available online here.