Noah Aronin

The Challenge of Religious Freedom

Freedom of religion is an important right for Americans.  But does complete religious freedom really exist in our pluralistic American society?

Currently, Hobby Lobby and dozens of other businesses are in the process of challenging the contraception mandate of Obamacare, arguing that it conflicts with their right to religious freedom.  They argue that being forced to provide contraceptives, which includes the Plan B drug, is being forced to do something against their deeply held religious beliefs.  Others argue that these businesses denying their employees full contraceptive coverage would amount to the employers forcing their own religious beliefs on their employees who are also entitled to religious freedom.  Many also question if corporations are entitled to religious freedom, or if only individuals can claim that right.

What a mess!

As an American Jew, I care about the right to religious freedom and I have strong feelings about these cases.  I feel strongly that people should have the right to religious freedom both in their personal lives and when acting as business owners.  I feel this way because as a Jew, the Torah mandates how I live every aspect of my life.  When God judges our actions, he doesn’t say “well, that doesn’t count, he was wearing his business owner’s hat at the time.”  The Torah expects Jews to act according to its mitzvot (commandments) both in their personal lives and when acting as business owners.  Many non-Jews feel their religions also apply to all aspects of their lives.  Therefore, if we really want religious freedom for individuals, we must apply it to businesses too.  If we don’t, people lose their religious freedom when they run a business.

However, even if we were all to agree that corporations are entitled to religious freedom, these cases are far from solved.  We still have the issue of some people’s religious rights conflicting with the religious rights of others.

Although my religious beliefs don’t conflict with the contraception mandate of Obamacare like those mentioned above, I still feel strongly that business owners in America should not be forced to facilitate or pay for activity that is against their religious beliefs.  Some argue that employees’ private medical activity is unrelated to employers’ ability to worship their own religion.  But those of us who live all aspects of our lives based on our religious beliefs, are not free to do that if we’re forced to facilitate or pay for activity contrary to those beliefs.

At the same time, I also feel strongly that American employees should not have their rights limited by the religious beliefs of their employers.  Employees also have the right to religious freedom and although some may argue they can do what they want as long as they pay for it themselves, practically speaking they often can’t.

These are tough cases because while everyone in America should be entitled to religious freedom, it seems that not everyone can practically exercise this right when it comes to healthcare.

How can we solve this problem?

When it comes to healthcare, the best solution would be to live in a society in which employers aren’t the ones to provide health insurance.  If American employers paid employees more money instead of medical benefits and employees then took that money and joined an insurance plan through groups such as their synagogue, church, softball league, gym, bank, or social group, then we wouldn’t have this conflict of choosing who can exercise their rights and who can’t.  Everyone would be able to join an insurance plan that covered what they wanted regardless of where they worked, and employers wouldn’t be forced to facilitate activities against their religious beliefs.  This system would also have the added benefit of people not having to worry about losing their insurance when they change jobs.

That would be the ideal, but it’s not going to happen (at least not anytime soon).  Realistically, the best solution would be for employers to be obligated to provide the same type of health insurance coverage for their employees that they do for their families, and for the government to cover anything that an employer is religiously opposed to.  Practically speaking, the government can probably do this at a pretty low cost.

These are just a couple of possible solutions.  There may be other alternatives that could also be worked out so that both sides are happy and have their rights protected.  It’s also possible that the Supreme Court ends up ruling in a way that violates some people’s religious freedom.

I hope that however these cases end, people on both sides can find a way to stop vilifying each other.  I hope people on both sides can understand that no one is trying to hurt others.  Both sides are just trying to fight for their own right to religious freedom that America has promised them.

About the Author
Noah Aronin is a Modern Orthodox Jew who lives in Riverdale, NY with his wife and two sons. He earned MA degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service from Towson University and has been serving the Jewish community professionally in both fields for more than ten years. Currently, Noah is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Rabbinic Intern at Hofstra Hillel.