SCOTUS Decision on Religious Freedom: An Orthodox Perspective

SCOTUS Decision on Religious Freedom: An Orthodox Perspective


It was hard yesterday, on a quiet summer Sunday in rural central Pennsylvania, to imagine that the small factory across from the lot where we’re building our Orthodox mission temple would have its fate decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC today.

But it did.

Conestoga Wood Specialties, owned by a Mennonite family, was, along with better-known Hobby Lobby, owned by an Evangelical Protestant family, the focus of today’s final Supreme Court decision for this season.

The case centered on whether companies because of their owners’ religious beliefs could opt out of government-required contraceptive insurance coverage (which some deem abortifacient) under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or face crippling fines that would have forced Conestoga out of business.

Every week for months during Liturgy, around the corner from the plant, at the temporary house church where we meet, our Orthodox Chapel of the Holy Spirit mission has prayed for those defending the sanctity of life through civil disobedience, keeping Conestoga in particular in prayer. The company has a reputation as a good neighbor and of treating its employees well, but because of the religious beliefs of its owners faced closure as a result of penalties for not adhering to the ACA provisions under dispute.

But the Court decision today not only helped keep Conestoga open, but provides a bit of legal breathing space in “post-Christian” American politics for traditionalists concerned with an emerging array of issues also of concern to Orthodox Christians, from abortion to marriage.

It did so in finding that family-owned, for-profit corporations could claim exemption from certain ACA requirements on religious grounds. The decision in effect extended protection by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a broader range of organizations.

The alliance in support of claims of religious exemption by the two companies itself illustrates an emerging twenty-first-century type of ecumenical alliance in America–potentially connecting Orthodox Jews, conservative Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, Anabaptists, Mormons, Muslims, and also Orthodox Christians, on specific issues such as freedom of expression on issues such as traditional marriage.

For while the United States arguably had a “soft establishment” of a Judeo-Christian civil religion rooted in Protestantism during the first half of the twentieth century, Orthodox Christian Americans today (often converts or generations removed from immigrant status) now have to navigate the emergence of a less familiar secular state, following decades of judicial rulings that by the twenty-first century have removed much of that earlier civil religion, which had its own problems.

Some religious groups, such as the Amish and practitioners of some Native American religions, have already eked out pockets of established rights for their communities, a practice with which many Christian traditions in America have been unfamiliar until recently, given their formerly privileged status.

In this century, state secularization impacts Orthodox Christian families in potential challenges to traditional ways of life involving public education of children, cultural media, business and professional activities, issues of child-rearing and psychological or medical treatment, and even charities and church camps or (some fear in future) churches themselves, with regard to issues of tax exemption especially. The U.S. President’s National Security Adviser for example suggested recently that our government should press for change in religious teachings internationally on issues of sexual morality as they relate to secular rights.

Today’s decision offers some partial relief for concerns about government action toward traditional faith communities in the U.S., but no salvation from an Orthodox perspective. (It also qualifies the notion of corporations as persons, as troubling to many Christians as a potential idolatry as the notion of the state as a person.)

Orthodox Christians aware of their own history would do well to do some summer reading in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the recently published English translation of Ivan Sokolov’s The Church of Constantinople in the Nineteenth Century, which both illustrate graphically the past sufferings of the Church in antagonistic cultures, and the salvific power of the witness of martyrs.

Thankfully we haven’t reached anywhere near that point in the U.S. yet, but despite today’s Supreme Court decision, the trajectory of our culture doesn’t offer grounds for optimism. The decision itself is a reflection of that trajectory, and the severe persecutions faced by many Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and Africa in particular require our prayers.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence speaks of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

But as the bioethicist Herman Engelhardt has pointed out in his The Foundation of Christian Bioethics, from an Orthodox perspective, “Natural law is, after all, the spark of God’s love in our nature, not the biological state of affairs we find in broken nature. Natural law is not an objective external constraint, but the will of the living God experienced in our conscience.”

In other words, we pray for our leaders, we preserve the memories good and bad of lost Orthodox empires, and the hope for symphonia of Church and State rather than the isolation and retreat of the former in human culture, but we also know the reality of the gulags and Catacomb Church in the USSR and the slavery of being dhimmis in the Ottoman Empire. Christ’s kingdom ultimately is not of this world. We should pray and work in support of the freedom of people like the Hahn family, owners of Conestoga, and for our own freedoms as Orthodox Americans to pass a living tradition across generations to our biological or spiritual children and grandchildren. But finally, we pray to The Lord to preserve His commonwealth.

The Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart put this in another way when writing whimsically of his support for the Tolkienian notion of “anarcho-monarchism”: “one can be grateful of the liberties one enjoys, and use one’s franchise to advance the work of trustworthier politicians (and perhaps there are more of those than I have granted to this point), and pursue the discrete moral causes in which one believes. But it is good also to imagine other, better, quite impossible worlds, so that one will be less inclined to mistake the process for the proper end of political life, or to become frantically consumed by what should be only a small part of life, or to fail to see the limits and defects of our systems of government. After all, one of the most crucial freedoms, upon which all other freedoms ultimately depend, is freedom from illusion.”

About author

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers has a Ph.D. in Medieval English literature from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Early British Studies from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. He teaches English and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, where he is incoming Chair of the English Department and Associate Professor. His research includes work on nature in early literature, especially in the writings of John Scottus Eriugena, and in modern fantasy and nature writing, drawing in part on Estonian ecosemiotics. He is the author of Strange Beauty: Ecoritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, editor of Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, and co-editor of Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages, and he is a co-editor of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. He was baptized into the Orthodox Church in 1999. His wife Olesya is originally from Russia and they have two sons. They are members of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit mission (OCA) in central Pennsylvania, regularly visit Agia Skepi Monastery (GOARCH) nearby, and are also long-distance member-supporters of St. Herman of Alaska Church mission (ROCOR) in northern Virginia. He studies in the Pastoral School of the ROCOR Midwest Diocese and serves on the Steering Committee of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. Formerly he worked as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and Midwest correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He prays that his unworthy views here are Orthodox and do no harm, but they otherwise are his own.