George Graham

Trying to Make Sense of “Religious Freedom”

As I understand it, early settlers to America were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. In England, for example, the Roman Catholics and Protestants harried and butchered each other for generations. A monarch known as Bloody Mary burned Protestants at the stake. In Spain and Portugal the Inquisition tortured and killed “heretics,” claiming they were sacrificing the victims’ bodies to save their souls.

I imagine that was why the authors of the American Constitution included a brake against the government getting involved in religion.

But I don’t see the connection between Bloody Mary and Obamacare.

Or the Inquisition for that matter.

Nobody is being burned at the stake because of the new health care law. Nobody is being broken on the rack or put to death by Inquisitors.

Yet, as I write this, the Supreme Court justices are pondering a lawsuit claiming the law violates the religious freedom of a craft store chain called Hobby Lobby.

How? By requiring employers to include birth control in their employees’ health insurance coverage.

The owners of Hobby Lobby say they don’t believe in birth control. They say it’s against their religion.

I won’t burden you with the arguments pro and con. But I see a clear distinction here. I don’t think the government can force Hobby Lobby’s owners to practice birth control themselves. But, under its mandate to regulate commerce, it can make them provide birth control for employees who want it. The owners are free to follow their religion, and the employees are free to follow theirs.

That doesn’t violate anybody’s rights.

No reasonable American complains that their rights are violated when unsafe drugs are banned or unlicensed drivers prosecuted. They don’t feel oppressed because employers are required to provide a safe working environment. They don’t go to court to have building codes and traffic laws declared unconstitutional.

This kind of regulation is part of the government’s job.

And even if the justices feel Hobby Lobby’s owners should be free to deny their employees birth control coverage, they should beware of embarking on a very slippery slope.

Who knows what “religious” beliefs will show up next?

The courts have had to consider some weird practices in the past, and decided Americans aren’t free to follow such beliefs.

Smoking marijuana as a sacrament, got short shrift. Parents go to jail if they prevent their children from having life-saving blood transfusions, even if their religion forbids the practice. Animal sacrifices are taboo.

In considering the freedoms endowed by the Constitution, the court is still expected to have a little common sense.

 Click for more on the case.

Click for more on religious persecution.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for