Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Workers’ consciences deserve protection too

Faith arguments should not affect any worker in seeking or holding a job, or getting health care




The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month in the Hobby Lobby case is bringing battles over religious beliefs to nearly all American workplaces. No worker should have to go along with an employer’s beliefs, however sincere, to get along in his or her job.

I know what it’s like to have a boss’s religious beliefs foisted on me. When I was working my way through Harvard University, I was a part-time waiter at a coffeehouse. I liked the people there.

Everyone at the coffeehouse but me — an Episcopalian — was a Scientologist. A senior employee suggested I read Dianetics, the church’s basic text, written by Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard. Open-minded and workplace-savvy, I said sure.

After I read the book, my coworkers suggested I visit the local Church of Scientology. I took part in the introductory process there, but I politely declined to join the church. I was not willing to give up my own religious beliefs.

I did enough to get along, because they kept me on. But after Hobby Lobby, I wonder about that kind of religious pressure in workplaces now.

It offends my sincere religious beliefs when the Supreme Court allows for-profit companies, citing their own beliefs, to use a government exemption to reduce their health-care costs on the backs of their workers and other taxpayers. Health care has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since 1948. It’s past time to protect workers.

Cries of victimization and discrimination by for-profit corporations wear thin. Corporations are about making sales and cutting costs to maximize profits. An employee of a for-profit corporation has a job, not membership in a cult.

The low-wage strategy of many American corporations leaves some full-time workers eligible for food stamps, socializing these companies’ costs while capitalizing their profits. In France, where I lived for 17 years, citizens — whether or not they are working — receive health care at a minimal out-of-pocket cost.

That is how a civilized, modern, developed democracy does it. Even in our public-private system, workers should get full coverage with minimal co-pays. No organization, for-profit or not-for-profit, should get an exemption from supporting our health-care system.

Americans have cited their religious beliefs to rationalize slavery and racism, to oppose same-sex marriage, and to seek to repeal abortion rights. Faith arguments should not affect any worker in seeking employment, holding a job, or getting health care.

I propose that the Obama Administration immediately adopt an executive order on health care that would allow workers to object to government religious exemptions granted to their employers, based on their own sincere religious beliefs. Such objections would block or suspend the religious exemption until the dispute is resolved. In the meantime, workers who file objections would be protected from retaliation on the job or in hiring.

If this proposal won’t work as a regulation, let Congress pass it as a law — the Workers’ Conscience Protection Act. We need to protect the rights of conscience of everyone in the workplace, not — in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision – just those of for-profit companies.

Benjamin G. Davis is an associate professor at the University of Toledo College of Law.

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