Is there Common Ground in Hobby Lobby?

The Hobby Lobby decision is, perhaps, one of the more polarizing Supreme Court decisions in recent memory. Within moments of the decision, social media, news outlets, bloggers and pundits were analyzing, criticizing, supporting and deconstructing the decision. Why is it that this particular decision has garnered so much attention?
Let’s first summarize the basic facts in the Hobby Lobby case. We will omit a lot of the details that played a role in both the majority opinion and the dissent. We’re not interested in taking sides or analyzing the decision. We are interested in looking at why the issue has created such a divide. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare, requires some employers to pay for the health care insurance of their employees. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a federal statute that prohibits the government from burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless there is both a compelling government interest and that interest is being pursued in the least restrictive means possible. The question in Hobby Lobby was whether mandating, through the ACA, that Hobby Lobby must pay for health insurance that covers specific contraceptives that Hobby Lobby claims are contrary to its religious beliefs contravenes the RFRA.

We previously discussed that political positions are based on each person’s makeup of the six moral foundations of care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. We summarized the liberal versus conservative moral foundations by saying that liberal ideology places an emphasis on the Care foundation while conservatives tend to rely most heavily on the Liberty foundation. When these two foundations meet and a choice or opinion has to be made on a given issue, the conservative-liberal divide will be apparent and usually predictable.

In Hobby Lobby, we had a federal law, the ACA, that is firmly grounded in the Care foundation (the word Care is even in its name) intersecting with another federal law, the RFRA, rooted in liberty (while the word liberty doesn’t appear in the name of the act, the word freedom does which is fairly close). Putting aside the actual decision which involved questions of whether the word person includes for-profit businesses and other issues, the core issue as viewed by most is a straightforward determination of which moral foundation holds sway, the government’s obligation to care for its citizens or the protection of civil liberty, specifically the practice of one’s religion.

Is it possible for liberals and conservatives to find common ground in the Hobby Lobby decision? Most likely not. The stark lines drawn and proscribed by the statutes at issue, as they currently exist, leave very little room for middle ground. But healthier discussion on this very sensitive and important issue can be advanced by understanding that those who agree with the decision aren’t always looking to restrict women’s access to contraception and those that oppose it aren’t always looking to tear down the right to practice religion. Take a look at The Path to Productive Political Conversations for a more detailed approach to creating healthier discussions of difficult political issues.