What I Don’t Like About the Hobby Lobby Case

By now you have heard the SCOTUS ruling regarding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that compelling employers to pay for certain forms of contraception is burdensome to their religious liberty. When outlining these burdens, Justice Alito said, “It [the HHS mandate] requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.” The problem I’ve had all along with this case is that I fail to see how life beginning at conception is a “religious belief.” What makes it religious? Nothing as far as I can tell. No biblical text, or major creed, or longstanding sacred practice claims as much (the Bible recognizes that we exist before birth, but it does not say we exist at conception). You don’t even find this sort of thing in “statements of faith” save the Catholic Catechism, and the plaintiffs were not Catholic. If anything, whether or not life begins at conception is empirically determined. Why, then, is it counted as a religious belief?

Of course, there is more to it than just the beginning of human existence. For the plaintiffs, the belief that human life begins at conception implies that human life has moral status and should not be killed unless there is a good reason for doing so. Thus, we have a conjunction of beliefs at issue in this case: (1) human life begins at conception, and (2) human life has moral status. But the second one is no more religious than the first: one can reasonably hold it without being religious. There is even a third implied belief: killing early-stage human beings by virtue of birth control that is possibly abortifacient isn’t justifiable. Religious teaching may be the most relevant here, but like the other three beliefs, it need not be.

The Hobbly Lobby case is seen as a victory for religious liberty, and it surely is. But I doubt that it is a victory for the pro-life movement, because its key premises are judged merely to be “sincerely held religious beliefs,” which in the eyes of law at least, are beliefs that cannot be rationally supported. If they could, then we wouldn’t need to appeal to religion to prop them up.