Coll: Why the Hobby Lobby debate is helpful

Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver on May 22, 2013. Photo Credit: AP

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Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., argued before the Supreme Court late last month, is an important case not only because it pits a claim of religious freedom against a claim of promoting the health care of women. It captivates our attention because both parties make valid, and seemingly incompatible, legal points.

The Affordable Care Act mandates that for-profit businesses with 50 or more employees provide contraception coverage, including "emergency contraception" that can work after conception to destroy embryos. That provision has raised a question regarding the First Amendment protection that "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise" of religion.

The conservative Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain believe that once conception has occurred, preventing a pregnancy is the termination of life. The Obama administration argues that public health and gender equality provide interests for the government to compel the requirement. And it argues that a corporation shouldn't get a religious freedom exemption based on its owners' beliefs.

Since before the republic was formed, our nation has struggled to find the delicate balance between governmental authority and individual, faith-based protections. Some insist the separation of government and religion should be absolute; others reason that maintaining this chasm would be impossible in a society where faith is such a prominent part of who we are. It is this debate that is before the nine justices in the Hobby Lobby case. And its nuances are worth contemplating.

We can only speculate how the outcome of this case, which is expected to be handed down by the end of June, will define the controversial issue. One potential guidepost for the justices is a 1993 federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires that the government "not burden a person's religious exercise" unless the burden "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and is "the least restrictive means of furthering that . . . interest."

Under this standard, it's the government's responsibility to prove why the mandate is necessary; it's not the individuals' responsibility to explain their religious beliefs.

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The legal debate in the Hobby Lobby case raises important questions: Does a corporation have religious freedom? If the government can force compliance to a regulation contrary to a business owner's beliefs, can a law mandate anything the majority in power chooses to require of the minority? Can an individual choose to not follow a law based upon religious adherence?

It's not surprising that the case has engendered passion. We should be careful, however, not to mistake a question about the fine line between government power and individual rights with an attempt to abolish either one or the other.

Raising a question about religious freedom is not the same as creating a religious fiefdom. On the reverse, an attempt to determine what's best for women's reproductive rights doesn't always mean an end to religious freedom.

The Constitution provides the government with the power to promote the general welfare but also contains the First Amendment. As much as some on either side of the aisle would rather ignore the actual text of the Constitution, we must reckon with what it says, not what we want it to say.

So don't hold it against Hobby Lobby for being a party in the case, or be disgruntled toward the federal government for defending the mandate. Reasoned and informed discussions about the meaning of the Constitution are to be encouraged, not vilified.

In the end, our fellow citizens -- even those who disagree with the outcome -- will be better off having had the debate.

James Coll, an adjunct professor of American and Constitutional history at Nassau Community College, is the founder of ChangeNYS.org.

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