Ruth Ann Dailey: High court gets it right on religious liberty

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It was reassuring, so close to Independence Day, to witness the U.S. Supreme Court affirming liberty -- even when we find what some of our fellow citizens do with their liberty disagreeable and annoying.

To the chagrin only of ardent secularists, the court ruled last week that business owners may run their businesses in keeping with their religious beliefs -- that they don't surrender the constitutional right to "free exercise" when they own a for-profit corporation.

And beautifully laid out in Justice Samuel Alito's decision for the majority is reasoning that the Supreme Court should now apply to other cases of religious liberty. In fact, they should actively seek more opportunities to do so: We're in a "teachable moment."

First, the specifics: Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are businesses owned by evangelical Christians who oppose certain forms of birth control -- the ones that prevent a fertilized egg from being implanted in a woman's womb.

The companies filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services for mandating that they supply such contraception -- which they deem "abortifacients" -- in their employees' health insurance.

These business owners, Justice Alito wrote, "believe that providing the coverage demanded by the HHS regulations is connected to the destruction of an embryo... ."

This belief raises a difficult matter of religion and moral philosophy, he continued: When does it become wrong to perform an innocent act (i.e., providing insurance) that facilitates the commission of what one deems an immoral act (i.e., abortion) by another?

"Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question," Justice Alito wrote, "HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step."

In April, the court declined a perfect opportunity to give the nation another example of such forbearance, when it declined to hear Elane Photography v. Willock.

That's the case of the New Mexico wedding photographer, Elaine Huguenin, who in 2006 declined to provide her services for a same-sex "commitment ceremony," citing her religious beliefs. Although Vanessa Willock and her partner found another photographer -- at a lower cost -- they filed a complaint with the state's Human Rights Commission.

In 2008, the commission ruled against Ms. Huguenin and ordered her to pay $6,637.94 in attorneys' fees to Ms. Willock.

The decision was appealed, made its way through the state court system, and was upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court. One state justice actually wrote that being "compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives" is "the price of citizenship."

On the contrary, not being compelled to violate one's conscience is the privilege of being human. We just celebrated such unalienable rights.

The New Mexico decision is an astonishing example of the state "in effect" -- to quote Justice Alito -- "tell[ing] the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed."

Though the U.S. Supreme Court declined the opportunity to apply the same principle of religious liberty to same-sex marriage that it has so clearly outlined in Hobby Lobby, it will have more opportunities fairly soon. There are cases all across the country now in which citizens who hold traditional religious beliefs are being punished by the state for not plying their trades in ways or places that violate those beliefs.

At issue -- again, to paraphrase Justice Alito -- is the point at which an innocent act (e.g. taking wedding photos, baking a cake) becomes what one deems an immoral act (i.e. participating in a religious ceremony that violates one's conscience).

Justice Alito did not use the qualifying phrase I put in italics above: what one deems an immoral act. I think it's necessary because people of good will do not agree on the moral gravity of these various actions. That's the whole point.

I do not agree with Hobby Lobby that life begins at fertilization, and therefore I do not oppose any kind of "morning after" birth control. The Hobby Lobby employees who also disagree can get the birth control of their choice cheaply, pretty much anywhere.

When we don't agree -- and when there's no compelling need for the state to require an action -- then the government should decline to compel it or to punish us if we resist.

A majority of the justices upheld that principle in this case. That merits some fireworks.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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