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‘Religious freedom’ in health care allows for discrimination

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Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services established a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, evidently to promote and protect the rights to some of our most prized cultural institutions.

This fight between secular and religious ideology has been a key aspect of politics for the last century, but the Trump administration is reintroducing religious justification into politics and transforming health care into a ministry.

The United States has a long history of religious freedom. From the Puritans who braved the wilderness of a new world to Muhammad Ali’s great bout in the Supreme Court, the evidence of a struggle for religious freedom can be found in the soul of the land.

Debbie Harwell, a professor at the Honors College at the University of Houston, noted in her class lecture on Houston history that immigrants almost always set up a religious center when they arrived. That means the most significant cultural institution to most people is their place of worship.

The establishment of this new division can be extrapolated to be a result of a case that reached the Supreme Court in summer 2014. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was a case concerned with a perceived moral and religious grievance.

The case was sparked by the stunning realization that Hobby Lobby was paying for the contraceptives of its female employees. The corporation, finding fault with this, moved to discontinue this action on the basis of religious freedom.

The court eventually ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor, establishing what could become a precedent for these kinds of cases.

Four years later, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, has emerged to defend the rights of corporations that object to the coverage of women’s contraceptives, gender affirming surgery and any other number of health care treatments that could be found objectionable. Seemingly, this is a win for the corporations and for the United States’ long history of religious autonomy.

At least at face value, it is. No one should force someone to adhere to a certain religion. The case for religious liberty in the United States is relatively uncontroversial. People should be able to practice the religion of their choice and not be forced to worship any certain thing.

The HHS and Hobby Lobby want to cloak themselves in this argument, but reality is going to reveal the malignity of this facade. First, Hobby Lobby is not a person. The Supreme Court decision is largely reliant on the fact that it is.

This argument is deeply flawed.

Corporations do not worship things or exercise a right to freely assemble, so why should we grant them the same rights as people? Corporations are run by people, but they are presented as an entity and are treated as such. Their expressed purpose is to make a profit, and they cannot be extended the right to enforce religious policies on their staff and workers. 

The new division of the HHS seeks to protect the religious liberty of something that has never worshiped. Even more horrendous: By allowing Hobby Lobby and other corporations like it to enforce such policies, the U.S. has allowed those same companies to enforce their majority shareholders’ views on the workers.

The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division not only fails to protect actual humans’ religious liberties, it also fails to protect workers from having religiously charged policies forced on them. Before anything else, corporations are made to create profit.

Why should we treat them as if they are something they are not? Hobby Lobby is not a religious institution or a person. Denying people health care on this basis illustrates a lack of concern for the rights and wellbeing of working people.

Any reasonable person would agree that religious liberty is quintessential to the American Experiment, but letting corporations act in this way undermines the very values they claim to protect.

Let’s not trade corporatism for liberty and conjecture for truth.

This country was built by people fleeing persecution and seeking a better life. Tacitly allowing corporations to degrade these principles disregards the generations of people who struggled so fiercely for those rights.

Opinion columnist Zach Appel is a political science sophomore and can be reached at [email protected]

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