Monday, January 27, 2014

Thor, the Pope, and Hobby Lobby

You meet such fascinating people on the internet.

On Saturday night, I had a very interesting conversation on Twitter with a representative of Hobby Lobby. It started when a "promoted" (paid for) tweet by @HobbyLobbyCase appeared in the feed for @NorseMythNews, my Norse Mythology Twitter account.

The tweet that Hobby Lobby paid for me to see

@HobbyLobbyCase is "Hobby Lobby's official Twitter account for information and updates on the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby United States Supreme Court case." I had never previously imagined that a litigant in a case before the Supreme Court would take the step of setting up a Twitter account specifically to sway public opinion before presenting their case to the highest judges in the land. We live in strange times.

The case centers on the assertion by the owners of Hobby Lobby that their Evangelical Christian beliefs give them the right to decide which types of birth control their female employees can receive through their employer-provided health plans. The Affordable Care Act requires that all insurance plans cover preventative care, including all forms of contraception. All businesses with more than fifty employees must provide insurance that fulfills the law's requirements.

Hobby Lobby's owners argue that their religious beliefs exempt them from following the law. They assert that allowing their employees access to legally mandated plans providing what the owners call "abortifacients" would violate the owners' Christian beliefs regarding reproduction – even if the employees in question do not hold such religious beliefs themselves. You can read more about the specifics of the case by clicking here.

Hobby Lobby has decided to market this case as an instance of the government trampling the religious freedom of its owners. This is a bit strange, given that the owners are citing their religious beliefs as grounds for restricting the legal rights of their employees. The religious views of the female employees themselves – and their own beliefs regarding reproductive rights – seem to be of absolutely no concern to the owners.

Sign posted by National Organization for Women members at Hobby Lobby protest
Photograph by Kile Brewer

Even stranger is that the Evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby would quote the pope to bolster their argument. It seems that Pope Francis' marketing team has been so successful in selling the new pontiff that even Evangelicals are embracing his teachings. Everyone from religion journalists to lawyers have been rushing to create colorful photo-memes emblazoned with his declarations.

Strangest of all is the fact that the Supreme Court would hear this argument, since they already handed down a clear ruling on this issue back in 1990. In a 2012 article, I wrote about the earlier case in relation to President Obama's willingness to give Catholic organizations exemption from the Affordable Care Act's assertion of reproductive rights:
Liberty and fairness for all Americans, however, doesn't include followers of minority religious groups that lack financial and political clout. The 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith ruled that religious beliefs do not free individuals from complying with local or federal law. Members of the Native American Church were told that the state law forbidding use of peyote trumped Indian ritual use of the plant – a religious practice that predates the formation of the United States itself.
Judge Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion declared that religious beliefs do not provide immunity from the law. "To permit this," he wrote, "would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."
In 2012, I suggested that there was one law for minority faith groups like the Native American Church and another for large, monied religious organizations like the Catholic Church. In 2014, business owners with ties to Evangelical Christianity are brazenly asserting that their personal religious beliefs trump federal law and that the decision against the Native American Church doesn't apply to them.

I hope that the Supreme Court will remain consistent and give the same answer to Evangelical Christians that it gave to members of the Native American Church. If it finds in favor of Hobby Lobby, it will be broadcasting a clear confirmation that majority faiths have more rights and privileges than minority religions. That would be a dark day for everyone, but especially for those of us who belong to minority faiths.

Is there really equal access for all?

What follows is the full text of my public Twitter conversation with Hobby Lobby's official representative. For ease of reading, I have expanded the abbreviations in my own comments that were required by Twitter's 140-character post limit. When necessary, I have also included explanations in [square brackets].

HL – Convictions impact actions. @Pontifex [the Pope's Twitter name – remember what I said about his marketing team?] understands this. Why doesn't our government? #SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] [see above for attached image with pope-quote]

KS – Hobby Lobby pays so I see tweets on @HobbyLobbyCase, quotes Pope to support anti-reproductive-rights stance. #WastingMoneyOnTheWrongAudience

HL – We offer 16 of 20 contraceptives covered under ACA [Affordable Care Act], and our employees are free to obtain the remaining four.

KS – You should review Native American Church case. Court ruled religious views do not give right to disobey any part of law.

HL – Here's a link to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion ruling in favor of our position:

KS – Interesting. You think there should be one law for minority faiths like Native American Church and another law for Christians?

HL – Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby is the only case we're arguing.

KS – [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia's majority opinion against Native American Church: religious belief never gives exemption from law. Are you saying he's wrong?

HL – We're asking the entire court to take a look at our specific case and make a judgment based on its merits.

KS – If you stand by religious equality, follow Native American Court ruling; if you think Christians have more rights than minorities, go to court.

HL – There are nearly 100 religious liberty cases at various levels of the American court system right now. All are important.

KS – Your case isn't about religious liberty but about a majority faith asserting a right to dictate morality in violation of law.

HL – We are not dictating morality. We're asking the government not to dictate how our founders run their family business.

Our founders have deep religious convictions that impact every aspect of the way they do business.

This case, and the laws at its core, are absolutely about religious liberty.

KS – You're asking for religious belief to give exemption from federal law, exactly what Supreme Court said would lead to lawlessness.

HL – This federal law infringes on the religious freedom of our founders, a freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.

KS – First Amendment doesn't say individual religious belief gives right to disobey federal law. Is that really your lawyer's argument?

HL – Again, we refer you to the Tenth Circuit ruling. Constitution's free exercise clause & RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] (1993) at the core of this case.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

KS – That's not what this case is about. You can read about relevant Supreme Court decisions in this post:

HL – SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] will be weighing our case through lens of free exercise clause and RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act], so that is exactly what it is about.

KS – This is about religious practice if telling those outside your faith how to act is a religious duty; my faith teaches opposite.

HL – Again we're not telling anyone how to act. Our employees (who come from all walks of life) are free to make their own choices.

KS – I'll buy your religious freedom stance if you tweet, "Hobby Lobby believes Thor's followers are equal to Christ's in every way."

HL – [no reply]

KS – Or you could tweet, "Hobby Lobby believes that Thor's followers be exempt from any tax paid to non-heathen administrations."

HL – [no reply]

KS – Or, "Hobby Lobby defends right of Odin's followers to be publicly intoxicated while drinking sacred mead in public areas."

HL – [no reply]

The spokesperson for Hobby Lobby went off to argue with other Twitterers at this point. I think it's pretty clear what his reaction was when asked to take a public stand on religious freedom for those other than Christians.

It really gives the lie to Hobby Lobby's claim to be fighting for the right of the individual to practice her religion free from government interference, doesn't it? Then again, that's not what this case has ever really been about.

My final Twitter comments were admittedly preposterous, but so is the idea that the religious beliefs of Hobby Lobby's owners give them a right to disobey whatever law they feel like. If the followers of Christ receive a free pass, so should the followers of Thor (and every other deity). Is the Supreme Court willing to put that in writing?

I woke up this morning with the words of the leaders of Iceland's state-recognized heathen church ringing in my ears. The members of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) practice Ásatrú, the modern iteration of the Old Norse religion of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other gods and goddesses.

When I interviewed her in 2010, Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir explained to me the connotations of the word heiðinn – the Icelandic equivalent of the English word heathen, which is the most common self-identifier for followers of Ásatrú:
Heiðinn, that’s the word that we use. It is the same as heiður, which means clear. We say, “Heiður himinn” - the sky is clear. You should keep a clear head. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do, don’t let anybody rule you. Think, yourself. That’s it.
When I interviewed Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson the same year, he said something so pithy that it deserved to be made into a pope-style meme:

These Icelandic heathens place great emphasis on clear thinking, freedom of thought, and the right of the individual to determine her own truths. Their ideas seem much more filled with the Spirit of America than do the ideas of the Hobby Lobbyists, centered as they are on the assertion that their religious ideas must be forced upon others in the secular sphere. Hobby Lobby's insistence that religious law trumps secular law seems awfully like an embrace of the principles of sharia law – the great bugaboo of America's religious right.

The Evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby are attempting to redefine "religious freedom" to mean "using a position of financial power to force one's religious beliefs upon those outside one's own faith tradition." Maybe it's time for American heathens to step up and provide a different perspective – one that actually embraces the ideals of freedom that the Hobby Lobbyists are twisting to suit their own agenda.


ruby spitfire said...

So if my religion dictated that I had to perform human sacrifices, I could not be tried for murder?

Unknown said...

The Christians have been trying to impose their beliefs through financial and physical power since the Christian crusades, and probably longer. By the gods, they never stop.

Joanna said...

I tried to engage other self- proclaimed heathens in a Facebook group in a discussion of why majority religious beliefs can be dangerous to members of minority religions. While I had no expectations of complete agreement, I was stunned and disheartened at how many people were adamant that part of their belief system was in not caring what anyone else believes.

The gist was that heathens should mind their own hearth and kindred, and that it is some kind of reverse discrimination to concern oneself with even the negative aspects of majority religions' political actions.

Still not sure what to make of that...

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


Personally, I think it is very important for HOPI (Heathens of Positive Intent) to engage those of other faiths in public discussion. I believe that we deserve a seat at the interfaith table – not to promote our own tradition or to gain converts, but because we have a unique perspective that can only enrich public discourse.

However, I understand heathens who decide to not engage in this sort of cross-tradition discussion. If you have been excluded, ignored or vilified for long enough, it is only to be expected that you would turn your back on those who turn their back on you.

I would encourage you to follow your heart. If you contact me through the Ask a Norse Mythologist tab, I would be happy to continue this discussion via email.


Angry Single Mom said...

I used to be an evangelical Christian, but back in the 1980s with the rise of the Religious Right I could no longer in good conscience be party to religious bullying, so I left. Businesses cannot use religion to trump the legal rights of women (a noted non-minority historical victim). If Hobby Lobby wins the case, I will start a religion that refuses to recognize straight Christian couples and I will sue anyone who tramples on my beliefs. Two can play at that game.

You did a great job of defending your case. May Thor watch over you and protect you from the evil zombie worshippers.

Steve said...

IMNSHO, I think that Asatru is given a bum rap because of the belief in the Gods, and I defend it whenever I csn. Mind you, I am Roman Catholic and I believe that. I have even defended it as a caller on a National morning radio show, and ended up with the same reaction you received sir, dead silence. That's not fair, not in the least bit.

I dont care what anyone else believes, so long as their beliefs are not harming others or hindering the beliefs of others. It's a much larger world these days than it used to be, and like it or not, we all have to learn how to get along.

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