Everybody claims to love diversity, but genuinely deep diversity is actually very hard to live with.

It is easy to accept differences about things one thinks of as unimportant, but to accept diversity about things we care deeply about requires rare and difficult virtues: the determination to understand the outlooks of people we believe to be deeply misguided, the willingness to accept political results we regard as only second-best, and the confidence in our liberties and beliefs not to be threatened by difference.

None of these virtues has been on conspicuous display in the torrent of hostile reactions to last month’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Numerous progressive activists denounced the Supreme Court for allowing companies (as they — erroneously — put it) “to deny access” to contraceptives. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sneered on Twitter at the Green family’s “vague moral objections.” And many less-prominent individuals’ tweets and comments were still more hostile, likening the stores’ owners to the Taliban.

I get it: the progressives believe strongly, and sincerely, that everybody should be made to buy health insurance coverage that includes the widest possible access to contraceptive care. But, if they in fact value diversity, they should look for ways of living harmoniously with people who disagree with them, instead of demonizing and disparaging them.

Which is why they should welcome the court’s actual decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) requires firms to provide health insurance but left it to the Department of Health and Human Services to spell out exactly what that insurance has to cover. The department decided that only insurance plans that covered all 20 forms of FDA-approved contraceptives would be acceptable.

Recognizing that many conservative religious groups sincerely believe that life begins at conception and that to take any step that prevents a fertilized egg from successfully implanting in its mother’s womb is tantamount to abortion — which in their view is homicide — the department offered an accommodation to certain religious nonprofit organizations.

Under the terms of that proposal, the religious nonprofits could provide health insurance for their employees that did not cover the four forms of birth control that can lead to the destruction of fertilized human eggs. But the insurers would in turn be required by the government to provide that coverage to the employees, at no cost to either the employees or to the employers.

Like the trustees and officers of many religious nonprofits, the five members of the Green family who jointly own the Hobby Lobby stores hold that human life is sacred from the moment of conception, and they, too, object to being required to help other people destroy human life.

So, though they happily pay their employees a generous wage (their employees start at $15 an hour) and cover the other 16 forms of FDA-approved contraceptives, they object to being required to pay for health insurance plans that cover the four potentially abortifacient contraceptive methods.

But the Obama administration refused to offer them (or any for-profit company) the accommodation it gave to the religious nonprofits. Thus, in the Greens’ view, the mandate imposed on them a terrible choice: to betray their principles, or to get out of business.

Because it is generally a bad thing to make people betray their principles, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed to save people from having to face that choice unless the controversial law was the “least restrictive means” of advancing a “compelling governmental interest.”

As Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion makes clear, all the court held was that, because the government had already figured out an alternative way of providing the controversial insurance coverage, without requiring employers to abandon their principles, there was a less restrictive means available to it to accomplish its goals, and so it had to make that same accommodation, or a similar one, available to the Greens.

Remember: under the terms of that accommodation, the owner-employers (who, after all, are the ones who created jobs for 13,000-plus people) are left free to practice their religion while participating fully in the public life of their country — and the employees, whose right to use their own money to buy whatever medical servcies they might want was never in question and never in jeopardy — would end up with exactly the same, full package of contraceptives coverage mandated for everyone.

Lovers of diversity should be celebrating this decision as a win-win: religious diversity is respected, and the employees get all the contraceptive coverage the Obama administration thinks they should want.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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