In 2014, Hobby Lobby won a landmark Supreme Court decision that exempted the home-goods chain from providing certain forms of contraception to employees. The Court ruled that closely held for-profit companies whose owners have religious objections are protected under the First Amendment. But the 5–4 ruling left many in confused outrage: How can a for-profit company invoke a Christian identity? Shouldn’t a business operating in the secular sphere have to play by secular rules?
For Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies—two scholars with long experience tracking tensions around institutional religious freedom—such protests rely on cramped notions of what counts as “religious.” Their new book, Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations (Brazos), assesses the dangers an uncomprehending secularism poses to religious businesses, colleges, social service agencies, and student groups. CT associate editor Matt Reynolds spoke with Monsma and Carlson-Thies (fellows with the Center for Public Justice) about the religious-liberty challenges facing faith-based organizations.
What is the basic problem your book addresses?
Monsma: The book grew out of our deep concern over challenges to faith-based organizations seeking to follow the religious commitments at the heart of who they are and what they do. You see this on many fronts. These challenges aren’t random; they reflect prevalent assumptions in our society. Until these assumptions are shown to be false, we’re afraid the religious freedom of faith-based organizations will remain under threat.
Carlson-Thies: We looked at a number of areas. Some issues are matters of internal operations: Can a faith-based organization hold employees to religious standards? Do their health plans have to include coverage for contraception or abortifacients?
Other questions concern how they serve the public, and whether they have to abide by secular protocols: Can religious adoption agencies receiving public money refuse to place children with same-sex couples? Can Catholic agencies serving refugees under a government grant refuse to refer clients to abortion providers? These are just some of the controversies we consider.