The Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision ignited a storm of debate over the general concept of religious exemption from the law. It has also sparked review of the 1993 Restoration of Religious Freedom Act (RRFA) upon which the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling rests.
Allowing such exemptions may seem expedient — a way to avoid throwing out the baby (Obamacare) with the bathwater (coverage of contraception) — but it also strikes me as potentially problematic. Will we, for example, grant exemptions for all religious beliefs, or just the ones we happen to favor?
But let's set those tough questions aside for the moment and concentrate instead on another point, one that I have not heard anyone raise thus far.
Each of us, religious and non-religious, always has an exemption, or at least a way to take exception to a law we regard as unjust. It is called civil disobedience. It can be a very costly option, not one to be taken lightly. But it is, always, an option.
Civil disobedience is consciously choosing to disobey a law you consider unjust or wrong, knowing full well that your decision may unleash unpleasant consequences. By enduring the consequences, a person can become an example of suffering for a righteous cause. Think of Martin Luther King going to jail in Birmingham, Alabama, for ignoring a judge's injunction against forms of non-violent protest such as marching, demonstrating or picketing. (During his incarceration, King composed the classic and powerful "Letter from a Birmingham Jail.")
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and '60’s, many people disobeyed laws they believed to be wrong. African Americans sat in the front of buses and at lunch counters, which was prohibited. They marched in the streets without permission and showed up to vote in defiance of laws and practices that disenfranchised them. They paid a price for their defiance, but they also attracted more attention — and sympathy — for the cause.
By raising the possibility of civil disobedience I am not agreeing — or disagreeing — with Hobby Lobby's argument about covering certain methods of birth control. I am simply reminding us all — Christians particularly — that there is a long history of using civil disobedience to respond to human laws that we believe violate a higher law.
Moreover, civil disobedience seems a far more noble and interesting path for those who oppose a law on the grounds of conscience than going to court to claim a special exemption.
This kind of civil disobedience is as old as the Bible. In the New Testament’s Book of Acts, the earliest Christians are ordered by the powers-that-be to stop talking about Jesus because they are disturbing the peace. When they respond by saying that they can’t be silent, that they simply must speak the truth they know, that they have no choice, they are thrown in jail — where they keep on doing exactly what they feel they must do.
There is something bold and brave (and typically non-violent) about civil disobedience, beside which the attempt to carve out a religious exemption for your company or clan seems anemic and self-serving. If people, whether on religious grounds or not, believe some action violates a higher law, taking a public stand through civil disobedience sends a very different message than petitioning a court. The CEO and Board of Hobby Lobby could have refused to provide contraceptive coverage and opened themselves up to the lawsuits, fines or imprisonment that followed for their failure to comply with the law.
“Here I stand, I can do no other," declared the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. The recent religious exemption cries instead, “Let me carve out a space, an exception, to go my own way.” Instead of involving a higher law or truth, it asserts an exception for me and mine, and in so doing consigns religious conviction to the realm of cultural practice rather than universal truth.
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