Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore defended America's long-standing religious liberty in a debate with church-state separationist Barry Lynn on C-SPAN March 28.
Appearing on the network's “Washington Journal,” Moore, the leading religious liberty advocate for the Southern Baptist Convention, and Lynn, executive director of a strict church-state separationist organization, expressed disagreements on the free exercise of religion and on a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court only three days earlier.
The disparity between their views seemed to become most evident when they began discussing the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide drugs and devices that have the potential to cause abortions. The Supreme Court heard arguments March 25 from the federal government in support of the requirement, as well as two family owned businesses – nationwide retail chain Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties – that contend the federal rule violates their owners' free exercise of religion rights and a 1993 law protecting religious liberty.
Asked by C-SPAN host Peter Slen about the Hobby Lobby case, Moore said the Green family, which owns the arts and crafts stores, “is simply asking to be able to live out their religious convictions without this burdensome and unnecessary government mandate…. The Green family says, 'We don't object to contraception, but we do object to contraceptive technologies or devices that we believe can possibly have an abortion effect. We don't want to be forced to participate in something that we believe could arguably be the taking of a human life.'
“And so that's the question – whether or not the religious liberty rights that we have are simply at the level of what we believe in our hearts and what we sing from our hymn books,” the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said, “or whether that religious liberty is the freedom to be able to live out one's life according to one's religious convictions.”
Slen asked Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, if the Green family shouldn't be able to operate its company as it desires.
“No, within limits frankly they can't do that,” Lynn responded. “We cannot allow the boss who happens to have one particular religious viewpoint to set up a corporation” in which he decides the company's interests “override the religious convictions of the women employees who choose to obtain contraceptive coverage, which the Green family says should not be available under their plan.”
Lynn said, “I don't believe that the free exercise of religion can be practiced by a for-profit company that's in the business of making do-it-yourself crafts…. Their purpose is not to practice religion. That's what you do if you form yourself as a religious charity or as a church or other place of worship. A company like this or a company that makes wood cabinets [as Conestoga Wood does] does not and cannot seriously claim a free exercise of religion right protected by [the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) “is about: Can Muslim firefighters grow a beard? That's about things that do not have an adverse effect on a third party like the Green family has a serious adverse effect” on Hobby Lobby's female workers, Lynn said.
The Constitution, Moore said, does “not mandate that we give up our free exercise and conscience rights when we enter into the workplace. Simply to say that because people are incorporated together and working in the marketplace this means that somehow their free-exercise rights are placed in a blind trust, I think that's a serious distortion of a great American principle.”
The Greens have “been for years and years and years seeking to put into practice their religious convictions,” Moore said. “It's the reason why they don't open on Sunday. It's the reason why they pay their employees at a higher rate than some of their competitors. They've tried to do everything they can to incentivize family time…. And so I don't think that we can say that simply because someone is in the marketplace this means that free exercise is gone.”
Moore also said, “No one is arguing that a sincerely held religious belief trumps everything. Instead, what [RFRA] entails is to say that the government must have a compelling interest in overriding religious free exercise and must find the least restrictive means to do that. And so simply because someone holds a sincerely held religious belief, that doesn't mean that the religious belief argument is over. It means that has to be weighed and that has to be balanced. And what we're arguing is that this government mandate is not necessary to achieve these goals and it isn't consistent with what we've always agreed to do as a country.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the rule in question in the Hobby Lobby case to implement the 2010 health care law. It requires employer coverage of federally approved contraceptives, including the intrauterine device (IUD), the Plan B “morning-after” pill and “ella.” Both the IUD and morning-after pill are described as possessing secondary, post-fertilization mechanisms that could potentially cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. In a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486, “ella” can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.
Lynn rejected the abortion concerns of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, which object only to coverage of the drugs and devices with abortion-inducing qualities and not other contraceptives.
“It is true in America you can have a sincerely held belief about anything,” Lynn said. “You can believe in Bigfoot. You can believe that all the Sesame Street animals, including Snuffleupagus, are going to move into your neighborhood. You can have all kinds of beliefs, but you can't put those beliefs into practice if they're claimed to be scientific beliefs if they're inconsistent with science.
“[T]he use of these medications prevents an egg or delays an egg from being released,” Lynn said. “It is never fertilized. Therefore, it is impossible for you to call it an abortion. We have to make public policy based on sound science, not on someone's religious view with this kind of overlay of pseudo-science.”
Moore replied, “The idea that 'ella' or an IUD can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb is not the equivalent of believing that Snuffleupagus is in one's neighborhood. This is a serious argument between people, and one will notice that in the oral arguments in the Supreme Court the government never argued that this isn't the case. They argued that these drugs aren't classified in this way.”
He also said, “[It] is not really up to Barry Lynn to dictate to the consciences of people who say, 'We believe the science shows that arguably this could cause an abortion. This could cause the womb to become inhospitable to an already fertilized embryo.'“
Moore defined religious freedom in response to Slen's first question as “the freedom to be able to live out one's religious convictions without coercion or pressure from the state.”
When Slen asked about the state of religious freedom in the country, Moore said he is “very concerned.”
“We have one court case after another dealing with very basic constitutional questions of religious liberty as well as a cultural climate that concerns me,” Moore told Slen, “when religious liberty is often presented in headlines in scare quotes, as though this were a political invention of recent times rather than what it really is – one of the bedrocks of this country, a natural right that the founders of this country believed was given to the people not by the government but by God.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)