“I Believe” is an inspirational popular song from the 1950s that managed to express faith without evoking any particular religion. Frankie Laine took it to the top of the U.K. charts for 18 weeks in 1953, and artists as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Perry Como, Tammy Wynette, and Elvis Presley produced recordings of it in the following years. Based on the number of versions posted on YouTube, I conclude that it is still well known and loved more than sixty years after its first release.
I found myself thinking of this song, even humming it quietly to myself, as I read numerous news articles and commentary about the suits involving Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby which were argued in front of the Supreme Court last week. Clearly the suits are about belief, and how beliefs drive action. But the more I read, the more I realized that “I believe” can have a number of different meanings and different kinds of meaning, both religious and nonreligious.
In the nonreligious realm, “I believe” can mean that one has made a choice among possible actions. Someone might say, “I believe I’ll have lunch at Tomato Pie Café today.” Having considered other available options, this person has made an ordinary decision that has no apparent connection to religious faith. “I believe” can also indicate a statement made with less-than-absolute certainty, often referring to memory of a past event. “I believe that Kate’s mother wore a green dress to the wedding” is the speaker’s best guess, to be proven or disproven when someone digs out the wedding album and checks the photos.
As I read about the Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby cases, I perceived three kinds of “I believe” statements at issue. The first one is purely religious: I believe that abortion is wrong. In this case “wrong” means a sin, something that is prohibited and/or condemned by the speaker’s religious faith. As a faith statement, it can be argued on theological grounds by persons having a different understanding of what faith requires, but it cannot be deemed correct or incorrect on scientific or logical grounds. And thanks to our First Amendment, faith statements cannot, by themselves, be the subject of legal action. By their nature they exist in a realm separate from science, logic, or the law.
The second statement also appears to be purely a faith statement, but upon examination, we see that it is not. Representatives of both Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby have maintained, “I believe that certain emergency contraceptives, such as Plan B and ella, cause abortions.” Unlike the first statement regarding abortion, this second statement includes a medical claim which takes it out of the realm of faith and into the realm of science.
In response, an Amicus brief has been filed with the court by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a long list of other medical and scientific organizations, setting forth the science of emergency contraception and explaining that the named drugs work to prevent ovulation and are not, in fact, abortifacients. One of the questions that the Supreme Court is asked to decide, therefore, is whether acting upon a sincerely held religious belief is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when that belief can be shown to be scientifically incorrect.
I want to pause in my analysis to emphasize that what is at issue is not the holding of a belief, but rather the actions that one takes or refuses to take based upon a belief. Goodness knows there are millions of people who hold beliefs in direct conflict with known science. They have a clear constitutional right to do so. It is only when they choose to act on their beliefs and those actions cause harm to another or break a law that the legal system becomes involved.
The third belief that comes into play is the belief that a for-profit corporation is entitled to a religious exemption to the law of the land based on the religious beliefs of the corporation’s human owners or shareholders. While this may look at first like a religious belief, it is instead a belief about interpretation of the law governing corporations. It is in dealing with this belief that the Supreme Court decision has the potential to cause the most upheaval in the way businesses are organized and managed.
A corporation is a legal fiction. One of the purposes of establishing a corporation is to construct a barrier between the business entity and its shareholders/owners such that the latter risk only those assets which they are willing to invest in the former. If that barrier is broken down in one direction – in other words, if the religious beliefs of the owners are permitted to apply to the corporation – some legal scholars worry that precedent will have been set to breach the barrier in the opposite direction. Will the owner’s personal assets then be vulnerable should the corporation suffer losses? Will shareholders be liable for criminal actions of the corporation even if they have no part in making managerial decisions?
A final belief which is implied, though not stated, in all the discussion is that a corporation is somehow capable of holding religious faith. Yet a corporation has neither physical presence nor mental sentience. It cannot kneel in prayer nor stand before a minister and congregation, make a confession of faith, and receive the sacraments. The owners of Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby are trying to convince the Supreme Court that a non-human legal construct is equal in constitutional rights to living, breathing human beings. From a religious point of view, I find that belief deeply troubling.
Typically the Supreme Court waits until near the end of its term to release decisions on complex and controversial issues, so we will most likely not learn the results of these cases until June. I for one will spend the intervening months hoping that a majority of the justices are able to distinguish between a non-human entity that exists only on paper and flesh-and-blood human beings who are able, of their own volition, to proclaim with faithful hearts, “I believe.”