Potential effects of ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’

I have a number of problems with the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision on health insurance coverage of contraceptives and religious freedom. But the concept that corporations can freely exercise religion isn’t the main one. I’m more concerned about what I perceive to be far broader and more problematic issues.

The decision is framed in terms of the corporate owners’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But Justice Alito’s majority opinion also points out that “it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.” Either way, this concept seems to raise some difficult issues. (As an aside, might not an atheist have a sincerely held, albeit not “religious” belief directly stemming from exercising their right to freedom of religion?)

What if a “belief” is wrong? Let’s say someone has a sincerely held religious belief that vaccines cause autism. Less hypothetically, many sincerely believe in young earth creationism. Science has repeatedly shown that these ideas are demonstrably incorrect. Yet being objectively erroneous apparently is irrelevant to whether the belief can be a basis to seek exemption from federal law.

Without regard to whether a belief can be objectively evaluated, the ramifications are significant. As Justice Ginsburg asks in her dissent, does the decision “extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?” And it isn’t limited to health care.

What if someone claims that complying with minimum wage or equal pay laws or hiring people who accept evolution violates a sincerely held religious belief? Can someone who sincerely believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God use slaves in their business instead of paying employees? Granted, the government’s interests in the context of my hypotheticals may be compelling (which the Hobby Lobby majority said wasn’t the case for the contraceptive regulations) or it’s used the least restrictive way of achieving them (another area where the regulations fell short). That doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential problem for individuals.

Moreover, given that courts aren’t supposed to decide whether religious beliefs are “mistaken or insubstantial,” how do they determine what beliefs are worthy of accommodation and which aren’t? Isn’t that not only a value judgment but one where courts may be favoring one religion’s tenets over those of another? Regardless of corporate “personhood,” this decision could more deeply enmesh the government in assessing our individual beliefs.

Accommodations to religious beliefs or observances … must not significantly impinge on the interests of third parties.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (June 30, 2014), (Ginsburg, J. dissenting)

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