As an old saw has it, "your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose." The Obama administration says your right to live as a Christian ends if you go into business.
Democrats are crowing about a second Obama term, and the Left's culture-war troops are emboldened by their trouncing of social conservatives. Religious conservatives need to plant their spears and brace for the coming federal assault on religious liberty.
The Obama administration this month, in defending its health plan's contraception mandate, articulated a narrow view of the First Amendment's religious liberty protections.
Obamacare requires employers to pay for contraception and sterilization coverage. This includes coverage of "morning-after" contraceptives, whose makers admit the drugs can kill a fertilized egg by preventing or "affect[ing]" implantation.
Many Christians oppose Obama's mandate on the grounds that morning-after pills function as abortifacients. Catholic teaching also holds that contraception undermines marriage and the family by stripping sex of its natural life-giving and love-giving properties.
The Catholic Church lobbied for an exemption. The administration exempted only houses of worship, but not the institutions run by the church. So, St. John the Evangelist parish in Silver Spring doesn't have to buy contraception insurance for its employees, but what about Holy Cross Hospital down the road? It will get huge fines if its health plan even requires a $5 co-pay for the Pill.
Other religious institutions, such as Catholic colleges Belmont Abbey and Notre Dame, along with evangelical Wheaton College, have sued, arguing that they should not be forced to violate their consciences.
But why should only religious institutions be allowed to exercise their consciences? The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. Should government be allowed to force ordinary people to violate the moral laws to which they subscribe?
David Green says no. Green and his family own Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores. They sued the administration on the grounds the contraception mandate prohibited their free exercise of Christianity by forcing them to pay for abortifacient morning-after pills.
The Greens weren't arguing that morning-after pills should be illegal. They weren't even trying to keep their employees from using them. They just didn't want to implicate themselves in what they saw as immoral activity.
The administration responded with an unsettling argument: The Greens aren't protected by the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause in this case because they operate a secular business. "Hobby Lobby is a for-profit, secular employer," the Obama administration wrote in a brief, "and a secular entity by definition does not exercise religion."
Part of the administration's argument is that the mandate controls the corporation's actions but it does not apply to individual owners.
So, people have First Amendment protections as long as they don't start businesses. If they do, and if they operate their businesses according with their own consciences, they "become laws unto themselves," as the Obama administration puts it.
So this is who the Left has in mind when it says conservatives are trying to legislate morality: people who dare to follow their moral and religious beliefs, as opposed to a code devised by bureaucrats regulating a secular state.
If people want to adhere to their faith, they best stay quiet about it. The liberal commentariat made that clear this past election season.
"I'm tired of religious groups operating secular enterprises (hospitals, schools)," writer Kevin Drum fumed in the liberal Mother Jones, "hiring people of multiple faiths, serving the general public, taking taxpayer dollars -- and then claiming that deeply held religious beliefs should exempt them from public policy."
Washington Post religion writer Lisa Miller probably made it clearest with her op-ed blasting the "smug fecundity" of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. You see, they have too many kids. She sneered at their "family photos, with members of their respective broods spilling out to the margins."
This is the culture war today -- Christians offend secular liberals by not abiding by the Left's social mores. In effect, they "impose" their morality if they dare exercise their religion in public. Christians are intolerable rebels if they try to operate institutions outside of government.
This is why a re-elected Obama is daunting. Conservative theologian George Weigel warned that the Obama administration "will, unfettered by reelection concerns, accelerate its efforts to bring free voluntary associations to heel as de facto extensions of the state."
In the case of Green and Hobby Lobby, the Obama administration showed its narrow view of the freedom of religion. Where else will this view lead the administration?
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.