At the moment, there are a number of court cases dealing with the conflict between “religious freedom” and statutory law. The core issue in many of them is whether various corporations or organizations should be required under law to provide medical services, primarily those involving contraception and abortion, to employees when those services are against the deeply held beliefs of the corporate/organization owners.
As I see it, there are three fundamental problems with the assertion that withholding such services from health care plans is an exercise of religious freedom, and that compelling the provision of those services is a violation of that freedom. The first problem is the definition of “freedom of religion.” The provision of coverage to pay for such services neither obligates the provider to endorse that service nor to require anyone to use it. Employees are free to exercise their “religious” rights either to use or not use those services. On the other hand, failure to provide such services requires employees who wish or need those services to pay for them or do without. Therefore, allowing an exemption to such employers is effectively allowing the employing organization to impose its beliefs on all employees… and imposes an additional burden on the employees if they wish not to follow those beliefs. This part of the issue has been raised and will doubtless be decided by the courts in some fashion or another, sooner or later.
The second aspect of the problem, however, doesn’t seem to have received much attention, and that’s the full scope of the economic discrimination the exercise of such “religious freedom” can have. If Corporation A does not provide certain medical services, for whatever reason, the likelihood is that its healthcare costs will be lower than those of Corporation B, which does. In addition, the costs of those services, when used, must be absorbed by the employees of Corporation A. Thus, Corporation A gains a competitive advantage while its employees are at a disadvantage. Given the fact that jobs remain hard to get, it’s also unlikely that many, if any, of the employees from Corporation A will depart over the additional costs they will incur. Thus, the exercise of “religious freedom” also results in corporate economic gain while reducing the available income to employees who need the uncovered medical services.
The third aspect of the problem is that, at least in the United States, we don’t allow religious laws or practices to supersede basic laws. You can’t break speed limits under the cloak of “religious freedom.” Nor can you pay employees below the minimum wage on the basis of their religion or the lack of it. You cannot base differentials in pay on religious practices or preferences – and yet, in effect, that is what an exemption from health coverage requirements would allow.
My bottom line is simple. You have the right to your expression of your religious beliefs, but only so long as what you practice doesn’t harm others or pick their pockets, especially under the guise of religious freedom. Whether what the courts will decide, and when, comes close to this position is still an open question.