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04 July 2014

Freedom is messy

Freedom is messy

Wikimedia Commons: Statue of Liberty

On reading the news articles surrounding theBurwell v. Hobby Lobby decision at the US Supreme Court this week, many of my British friends were left scratching their heads at the oddity that is employer-provided health insurance in the United States. As an American living in the UK it's easy to understand their confusion as it's an utterly different system to what exists here.

But it is what it is, and when president Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA) came into effect last year, its mandate that all companies should offer their employees contraception coverage was bound to bring on a battle or two. And the first big one concluded this week.

The craft store chain Hobby Lobby, owned by a Christian family, along with Mennonite-owned Conestoga Wood, won a vote in the Supreme Court on Monday which held that the mandate could not be applied to "closely held for-profit corporations" with religious objections to some forms of contraception that they consider unethical. Among other things, this ruling means that most for-profit companies have the same rights to religious freedom as individuals under president Clinton's 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

There are so many questions raised by this case, it is hard to know where to begin to address them. Why are corporations granted the same rights as individuals? Why didn't the Obama administration find a different way to ensure access to contraception? What are all these types of contraception, anyway?

Without getting too much into the details of the case, it does exemplify what a mess freedom can often be. At least for the time being, employers are free to decide what health insurance benefits to provide on top of salaries for their employees. In the UK, healthcare is provided by the government, and we don't generally think about what it does and doesn't cover. But in the US, because of the responsibility that is left to employers even under the new ACA, what companies are exempt from covering has become a hot-button issue.

The idea of freedom in the US cannot be separated from its history, and this seems especially appropriate to consider on this day, the Fourth of July. It was originally envisioned as freedom from tyranny, and to go about one's life without the interference of a distant authority. And religious freedom is built into the very core of the US government. The first amendment to the Constitution was a response to encroaching church establishment to ensure that believers would be able to worship freely regardless of their denomination. The more recent RFRA provides a test for new laws as to whether they will place a "substantial burden" on religious practice. In this case the requirement for employers to cover all contraception methods was considered a restriction on the religious freedom of the companies, and the cost of them not doing so was considered a substantial burden.

How healthcare is provided in the US is also intertwined with how history has developed. In a manner very similar to the UK - though the results were much different - the demand for comprehensive health coverage rose in the aftermath of World War II. The IRS determined that it could be offered tax-free by employers. Supply met demand, and the rest is history.

From a British perspective, it could be argued that freedom requires clear, common boundaries from the outset. In the UK, the boundary lines are drawn by the government. This allows it to grant its residents "free at the point of care" healthcare.

Freedom can manifest itself in many different ways. It's messy.

So, to borrow language from football, how should we as Christians react to this "set piece" that involves such a staggering array of players - evangelicals, Mennonites, judges, corporations, lobbyists, civil servants, feminists?

First, we rise above the rancour of the culture wars and keep our discussion civil, exuding light, not heat.

Second, we look at the facts of each case and form our opinions based on the best information we can access, and don't succumb to emotional manipulation or sweeping statements.

Third, we recognise that how freedom is worked out in history is not always black and white. In the ebb and flow of democracies the government makes decisions which we have elected them to make, but when those decisions affect our lives in a way that we find problematic, we have the freedom and the means to challenge them.

We may not agree with the arguments made by people who bring these kinds of cases to court, or we may support them wholeheartedly. Either way, amid the head-scratching mess of it all, let's remember that freedom is not just a right, but a gift of history to all who are privileged enough to live under it.

Anna Moyle is an American and a writer who has lived in the UK for six years.