Religion and Personal Responsibility



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    7-14,3-15

 ABSTRACT:  Giving exemptions on religious bases to complying with the laws of the nation would seem to create serious pitfalls.  If a religious believer insists that he should have the right to carry out every activity in ways that are consistent with his religion, it will result in considerable religious and civil conflict in this country.

KEY WORDS:  religion, responsibility, civic responsibility

Recently the U. S. Supreme Court granted “closely-held” corporations the right not to fund healthcare plans for their employees (under the Affordable Care Act) that included certain contraceptive products, as long as the holders of the corporation based their refusal on religious grounds.  While the Court majority probably found justification for their votes in legal precedents of which I am not aware, this ruling would seem to go against the understanding of many if not most citizens regarding the principle of separation of church and state.

Some of the basis for the Court’s decision seems to have been wording in applicable law that calls for the provision of health insurance not to “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”  It is difficult to comprehend the connection in this case between the exercise of religion and a corporation paying for these contraceptive products.  The exercise of one’s religion would naturally include freedoms to believe and to shape one’s own behavior in accord with one’s religious beliefs or spirituality, as well the freedom to seek whatever relationship with God or the divine that one wishes to have.  The exercise of one’s religion in a pluralistic and interfaith society surely should not include being able to control the lives of others according to one’s own religious beliefs.  In this case, the holders of the corporation in question were not influenced by society in their beliefs, were not curtailed from acting in their own lives in accord with their beliefs, and were not influenced in any way toward any specific sort of relationship with God.  Therefore, the exercise of their religious beliefs would not seem to have been “substantially burdened,” unless they perceived or felt that to be in any way involved in someone else doing something that they disagreed with on religious grounds constituted a burden—perhaps the burden of sinning themselves by signing the checks to the insurance company, or perhaps the feeling of being responsible in some way for the other person’s sinning.

The Court’s leaning toward favoring a very broad view of religious freedom was underscored also by the Court’s subsequent action of temporarily exempting a Midwestern college from paying for these kinds of products and services in healthcare while their appeal case is being adjudicated.  Their appeal asked that the college not be required to sign a statement (required by current procedures) making clear their religiously-based objection to these products and services which would then be used to allow or authorize the insurance carrier to pay for them.  The college wants to have no part of a process that allows or authorizes the insurance carrier to pay, presumably because they would then feel complicit in the provision of these products and services.  This would seem, again, an overinterpretation of responsibility.  No one would “blame” the college for signing such a procedural statement (including their Judeo-Christian God), since there could not be anything sinful to signing a paper stating that they have religious objections to certain products and services, so this would seem to an effort on the part of the college to control as far as it can the lives of others based on its religious views.

Another relevant example is the granting or not granting healthcare employees the right not to perform or participate in healthcare that is “against their religion,” particularly abortion.  Even psychology interns have claimed this “right” by refusing to counsel homosexual persons when the interns believed that homosexuality was “against their religion.”

The court’s recent rulings set forth no guidelines for deciding whether or not a claim is truly based on religious belief for the individual making the claim.  To grant relief for anyone claiming a religious exemption without knowing whether the claim is based on sincere and truly religious belief opens the door to fraud and tends to paint the behavior in question (these certain contraceptive practices, in this case) as “wrong” in themselves, rather than “wrong” only to certain persons for certain reasons.  The Court stated that judges could continue to determine in each case whether the complainant really believed his or her religious faith, just as they have been doing, but this is a complicated area, and it would seem that it might be well for all of us if the court had created written guidance in the matter.

In addition, the Court seems to be completely ignoring whether the religious belief allegedly being contravened is shared by many or is the product of only the complainant’s thinking or received truth from his or her god.  To allow every citizen to have a personal religion, on the basis of which relief could be sought in court, would seem to allow great opportunity for individuals to fraudulently evade the responsibilities of being a citizen.

The Court appears to have voted the way it did partly based on the fact that the Administration had already discussed an alternative that would provide coverage for those disputed contraceptive practices for the female employees of the corporation, which was to have the insurance companies pay for those disputed contraceptive practices instead of the corporation.  (Justices may have been thinking, then, more about an “unnecessary burden” on the executives than an “undue burden.”)  Granting a religious exemption has the result of those corporations passing on the cost of this coverage to the citizens in general, which seems just as immoral to some of us as those disputed practices presumably seem to those corporate leaders.  The corporations have not offered to contribute to the overall taxpayer costs of the healthcare law an amount of money equal to that needed for the disputed coverage, which would go some way toward balancing their moral books if they should do so.  This calls into question the sincerity of the moral basis for their claim.  (They are claiming that it is immoral to be required to pay for things they don’t believe in but by implication that it’s not immoral to make other citizens pay for what they decline to fund for personal reasons.)  Conscientious objectors to war are required to do something for the country that takes the place of their combat service, but these corporations have no such requirement and appear not to recognize this public responsibility, which calls into question their overall moral judgment.

In a broader context, it seems questionable to give religious claims a higher priority than individuals’ moral claims in general, since carefully considered moral beliefs have just as much personal authority as religious beliefs and are just as important to those who hold them as are religious beliefs to those who hold them.  Using this argument, if a citizen objects on moral grounds to war (or to some program of the Dept. of Education, etc.), perhaps he or she should not have to pay the taxes that pay for those activities.  Since we know that the Supreme Court would not allow this, it would appear that the present decision was more for the purpose of “keeping the peace” as far as possible with regard to religious rights, rather than a statement based on principle.  Similarly according to the justifications for the court’s recent finding, holders of corporations would seem to have a case for not paying personal or corporate taxes that fund abortions of any kind.


It is critical to understand the appropriate role of religion in a complex and especially in a democratic society.  Religion is appropriate for guiding us in our spiritual lives and in our personal relationship with the divine, and stemming from our spiritual lives we may choose to structure and guide our own behavior in certain ways—that is, in ways that embody or symbolize important aspects of our spiritual beliefs or that form daily reminders to us of those beliefs (e.g., the dress and actions of Hassidim Jews).  However, in our form of society, it is not appropriate for our behavioral conclusions from our personal spiritual beliefs to control the behaviors of others.  In a pluralistic society our daily routine behaviors must be guided by civil agreements on those behaviors and not by any one person’s or one group’s ideas about religion.  Because of religious diversity, it is impossible to have a society in which everyday behaviors that everyone engages in are consistent with all of the various religious and spiritual beliefs of every citizen, and a society in which the beliefs of one person or one group determine those daily civil behaviors (or makes every behavior into a religious behavior) is called a theocracy and not a democracy.

In these examples, healthcare providers wish to limit their roles to participating only in procedures of their choosing (in which cases, presumably, other providers would perform the functions desired by the consumers).  It might be argued that it is not disruptive to these healthcare systems if only a small number of staff or consumers are affected and that we can therefore “afford” to give healthcare providers the option to pick and choose among their duties according to their religious beliefs, but this makes allowing this option a matter of convenience and not one of principle.  Imagine if there might be a time when religious preferences affected half of the services of an organization, and it is clear that we would then have to have two (or more) systems of healthcare organizations, one providing only half of medical services and another one providing them all.  This would certainly be impractical, although if the principle involved were important enough to enough people, that is no doubt what we would do.

Receiving healthcare is not generally a religious issue, since healthcare is not forced on people (with a few exceptions with regard to parental healthcare decisions for children), but issues of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality do provoke dissent.  However, if a believer’s own personal belief and actions are not impaired by a law of the land, then it would seem reasonable that they comply with the law.  If the nation has decided that these contraceptive products at issue are a needed part of healthcare for women, then all health plans will include them, and it is reasonable that all corporations, including those headed by persons who on a religious basis do not approve of the use of these products, will be paying also.


The corporate leaders in the Hobby Lobby case (above) are not personally paying for these contraceptive practices, nor are they urging others to engage in them.  They are taking no behavioral steps personally to support these practices.  Their employees are not being forced to engage in these practices but rather choose individually whether to do so.  The corporate leaders’ personal religious beliefs are not being called into question, and no one would conclude from their corporation’s financial support for employee health plans that they personally agreed on religious grounds with every treatment or practice authorized by those plans.  So, what is the burden on their exercise of religion?

That the corporation was paying for healthcare for employees in itself does not seem to have been considered by the Court to be an “undue burden,” but the Court seems to have viewed the corporate leaders having to stand by and watch as the corporation pays for these disputed products that were enjoined by their religion (or write the checks for this healthcare) as an “undue burden” on the executives.  This seems to be a huge stretch in interpreting “undue burden.”

More importantly for these executives, in authorizing the corporation to comply with the law, they are in no way personally responsible for the healthcare outcomes.  It is critical to separate their appropriate role functioning from their personal feelings.  We all disagree with some aspect of the laws that govern our various role functions, whether we are policepersons, psychologists, or executives, but we comply with the law because that is how we are to function in those roles (and we do not in our society have one set of laws for the non-religious, another for Protestants, another for Catholics, etc.).  The corporate executives’ role function here is only to ensure that the corporation follows the law, something which is entirely appropriate.  Therefore, they would not be held accountable as long as they follow the law, and their God would not hold them accountable either, as long as they personally do not engage in the religiously proscribed activities.  As persons they may not like some of the results of their actions as executives, but those actions are taken in the role of corporate executive doing what he or she is supposed to do, according to the law.  In the role of corporate executive, they have no right to relief on a religious basis from following the law.  As a person, they might have some right to relief, if granted by the system, but as executives they have no such right.  They might argue that their God expects them to do more than to not engage themselves in sinful behavior and perhaps to protest or to engage in civil disobedience, which we tolerate in our society, and that is their personal right, but exemption from appropriate role functioning as a corporate executive on the basis of religious belief is quite another thing.

Corporations as such clearly have no beliefs and should have no personal rights (in my opinion), since they are not people, so this Court’s decision gives holders of a “closely held” corporation the right to control the corporation’s spending according to their own personal religious beliefs.  (This is probably partially a result, in the Court’s thinking, of its own recent ruling that corporations have some of the same rights as individuals with respect to making political campaign contributions.)

We can only conclude that these corporate leaders view being associated in any way with payment for these contraceptive products as “against their religion,” but this could logically be extended to (1) paying taxes for anything they disapprove of on a religious basis, such as abortion and even (2) being a citizen of a country that allows such practices.  There must be other things going on in the country that are inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but they are not seeking relief from those—e.g., paying taxes that support the teaching of evolution in schools or having public schools rather than religious schools.  If they really feel that any association of themselves with sinful or ungodly practices is intolerable, then perhaps they could move out of any town in which any citizens engage in these disputed contraceptive practices, but we see no such activity on their parts.  It would appear that, even though the Court denies it, this ruling opens the door to many such requests in far different areas of activity across the country, and it also takes a step in the direction of an attitude that anything that offends anyone should be changed, which is clearly inconsistent with living in a complex society.

Let us examine also the position of the individual employee who wishes not to have to participate in providing healthcare that he views as contrary to his religious beliefs or to assist in any way persons that he believes are sinful (in this case, homosexual).  (Lower courts, incidentally, have so far not upheld the request not to help gay and lesbian clients.)  The wish not to participate in procedures that the employee thinks are contrary to his religion would seem to be based on an incorrect conception of responsibility.  Again, these employees and trainees are not being forced to have abortions or participate in homosexuality but only to assist others in having abortions or in dealing with their life problems.  Thus, their position with respect to their God would seem to be preserved, unless they believe that their God also calls on them to distance themselves as far as possible from such behaviors or such people.  If this is their belief (and phrases or sentences from the Bible can probably be found to support staying distant from sinful things), then perhaps they should not live in cities with anyone who has an abortion or is homosexual or should not ride the bus with such people or go to a ball game where such people are in the audience.  This distancing is similar to the “shunning” that certain Amish groups (and Jehovah’s Witnesses) employ with regard to certain sinners.

The employee would probably say that she would feel that she was violating her beliefs by assisting the team or the clinic in providing an abortion.  She is not “doing” the abortion (let’s say the doctor is “doing” the abortion), but she feels that assisting the doctor is also sinful.  It would seem possible to reasonably see assisting (handing the doctor instruments, making the patient comfortable, cleaning up) as not sinful, even though observing the abortion procedure was distasteful to the employee and even though the purpose of the procedure is something she does not “believe in.”  She is not asked to OK the procedure or to judge it morally, only to do the same assisting that she would do in all other cases.  Her distaste does not seem to justify being allowed to opt out of her work normal work responsibilities, and her assisting would not seem to make her responsible for the abortion or responsible for the patient’s decision to have the abortion.  If distaste alone were allowed to be a legitimate reason not to have to perform certain work functions, then that opens a much larger door to workplace complications in general.  (There have been no reports in the news about doctors requesting the same type of exemption, and they could more reasonably be seen as “doing” the abortion, but perhaps doctors have more choice anyway in the procedures that they do, and, of course, neither doctors nor assistants would be likely to seek employment in abortion clinics if they had these scruples against abortion.)

For certain violations, such as murder, our laws place legal responsibility on persons who assist as well as on persons who actually do the murders, but this is only to discourage people from being involved in murder at all.  Abortion is not currently illegal, so there is no analogy possible between assisting with murder and assisting with abortion, since punishing those involved peripherally in a murder is a legal maneuver not based on a moral position (since it is not extended to person’s peripherally involved in almost all other crimes).  A person assisting with an abortion could say that abortion was murder and that they therefore did not wish to participate in any way, but that begs the question of whether that participation (assisting, scheduling appointments, janitorial work, etc.) is itself immoral.  This brings up the question, again, of how distant one must be to escape responsibility.  Does the receptionist bear some responsibility?  Does the janitor?  Does the financial officer for the clinic?  Does the landlord of the property, if the clinic does not own its own land?  It’s hard to see where responsibility stops.  In a sense every employee and every other person who makes this clinic possible (the city tax clerk, the legislators, the suppliers of medical equipment) bear some responsibility if “making the abortion possible” is the criterion.  To summarize, one’s definition of “being involved” is what is at issue here.

Perhaps if employees felt that their own personal purpose in assisting with an abortion was to make that abortion possible, then they could also view their assisting as immoral if they saw abortion as immoral, but this would imply a serious split in the person between wanting to make the abortion possible and also viewing it as immoral, which is quite an unusual personality problem.  In our argument here, we are talking about an assistant who does not want the abortion to take place and who views the abortion as immoral, and it is still possible to say that her assistance is not in itself immoral, since it is assisting the doctor and the medical team in the same way that she assists with other procedures that the patient has chosen.  Her participating in her role as an assistant does not imply in any way that she wants the abortion to take place.

If employees want to be exempted from some normal responsibilities for the sake of their consciences, then we might expect them to want to leave employment at a place that does the procedures they abhor, but this does not seem to be of interest to them.  They seem to feel that supporting the work of the organization as a whole is not against their beliefs, while physically participating in those particular procedures is sinful.


Allowing individuals to have special treatment because of their beliefs or to control the life outcomes of other people according to their own religious beliefs seems clearly to be contrary to the beliefs of most Americans (except for a small number who would prefer a theocracy to our democracy), yet that is what the Court’s latest ruling allows.  We pride ourselves on tolerating all religious beliefs in this country, and we tolerate a wide range of behaviors that are based on those beliefs, but this is only as long as those behaviors do not harm or burden other people.  This Court has a record now of thinking that it is not unlawful to incorporate religion into the life of the country to a greater degree than was done in the past (i.e., public prayer connected with civic entities, the religious exemption in this essay, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance).  We should remember, of course, that the Court is not empowered to decide for the country what is right and wrong, but only what is or is not consistent with the laws of the land, including the Constitution.  If we want the Court to have different laws to consider when it makes these determinations, it is up to us and to the legislative branch to craft new laws or amend the Constitution.

It is appropriate, nay necessary, for each of us to examine our beliefs and our consciences and to live by them, but perhaps in this case, the sense of responsibility of some employees is unreasonable and has extended too far, and perhaps seeking greater clarity on what God actually requires of them would help them to achieve a more comfortable relationship with their activities as healthcare providers.  We can assume that the employees described above feel that assisting tangentially with an abortion is sinful, but the key question is how far God would extend that responsibility net.