The Supreme Court opened a Pandora's box in its Hobby Lobby ruling last month, and the aftershocks reached Massachusetts quickly. The court ruled that the Oklahoma-based retailer could choose to ignore a regulation by claiming that compliance would violate its owners' religious beliefs. The rule in question was a provision in the Affordable Care Act that required employers to include coverage of birth control in their health plans. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the deciding vote in the 5-4 decision, insisted the ruling was so narrow it would have few broader implications. But it's just as easy to see the decision as inviting other religion-based claims. After all, if religious companies can wriggle out of health care laws they dislike, why not religious colleges out of employment law, too?
That's where Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, comes in. Like many other American institutions, Gordon dislikes some government policies — in the college's case, an impending executive order that will prohibit federal contractors from discriminating in their hiring based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The school, if it finds that rule too onerous, could simply stop taking federal money. Instead, Gordon, a la Hobby Lobby, wants an exemption from the rule. (Gordon's stance has, in turn, provoked a backlash from the City of Salem, whose mayor broke off a contract with the school.)
Gordon's request differs in many respects from the Hobby Lobby case, but the underlying argument is the same: Institutions should be able to pick and choose which laws they follow. The court, and the Congress that passed the 1993 law that justices relied on in the Hobby Lobby ruling, bear responsibility for fueling the trend, which undermines the vital balance between individual conscience and the public good. Rightly, the government seeks to respect individual religious faith: A Quaker can cite pacifist religious beliefs to get out of the military draft, for instance. But the religious freedoms of individuals had always been understood to have a rational limit: They stop where the rights of another person — say, a job applicant's right to be free from discrimination — starts.
That's the commonsense logic that's now been called into question by Congress, the court, and Gordon College. Giving Gordon and other Christian colleges license to discriminate in hiring would affect janitors, secretaries, or anyone else who applied for a job there. It's more than just contraception access, or anti-discrimination policies, that are at stake. The court's deference to religious objections seems to make it harder for a pluralistic society to impose any rules on itself at all. Before the quest for religious exemptions becomes absurd, cooler heads need to prevail. The court should take the earliest opportunity to limit the scope of the Hobby Lobby decision. And Congress should amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to restore some common-sense limits on when companies or individuals can claim religious objections to skirt the law.