Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
The Supreme Court says it will hear a case challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, the first legal challenge to the law it has taken up since its split 5-4 decision to uphold the basic underpinnings of the law last year. This time around, the justices will consider whether for-profit companies whose owners object to the mandate for religious reasons must provide their employees with insurance coverage of contraceptives.
Overall, a majority (55 percent) of Americans believe that all employers should provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception at no additional cost, while 4-in-10 (40 percent) oppose this requirement. However, there are significant differences in levels of agreement among religious groups. Roughly 6-in-10 Catholics (58 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (61 percent) support the requirement, while white mainline Protestants are divided (50 percent favor, while 47 percent oppose). A majority (56 percent) of white evangelical Protestants believe that employers should not be required to provide their employees with health care policies that cover contraception.
Given these patterns of support, perhaps it is not surprising that despite the Catholic Church’s vocal opposition to the contraception mandate, the current cases headed to the Supreme Court were initiated by the Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain owned by an evangelical Protestant, and a Mennonite-owned cabinet-making company.
But it’s not just religion influencing attitudes on this issue, as Americans draw a significant distinction between appropriate requirements for small businesses versus large corporations. A majority (53 percent) of Americans say privately owned small businesses should be required to provide their employees with health care plans covering contraception at no cost, while more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) say these types of companies should not be required to do so. Americans are significantly more likely to believe publicly held corporations should have to provide health care plans covering contraception at no cost, with more than 6-in-10 (62 percent) saying they should be required to do so compared to one-third (33 percent) saying they should not.
While the Supreme Court’s decision will certainly speak to the issue of religious liberty in America, it’s also sure to foreshadow the outcomes of future cases concerning health care, women’s rights, and the separation of church and state.