Religious Freedom and Business: A Complicated Relationship

A host of recent controversies raise basic questions about the nature and extent of employees' religious rights while on the job. Responses to this topic will answer the following question: How would you describe religious rights on the job? 

By: Samuel Gregg

Though strong correlations have been made between political and civil liberties and religious freedom, it’s unusual for people to make strong connections between religious liberty and the freedom of individuals and businesses to operate in the economy. More recently, however, increased attention has been given to the ways in which businesses can be impacted by apparent infringements of religious liberty. The recent Hobby Lobby case is one instance in which the Supreme Court of the United States maintained that the religious freedom of a business had been infringed by various regulations associated with the Affordable Care Act.

In truth, however, the relationship between religious liberty and the freedom of businesses and other actors in the economy is complicated and not always straightforward. Limiting a religious group’s participation in political life, for example, has often resulted in its members focusing on realizing success in commerce. Good examples of such groups have been Jews and Arab Christians at different points of history.

Until relatively late in the modern era, most Jews in Europe were legally prohibited from formal involvement in political life and barred from serving in particular professions such as law, the civil service, and the military. Throughout Western and Eastern Europe, many Jews consequently gravitated towards commerce and finance as activities in which they were allowed to exercise their talents. To the eternal shame of Christians, the tremendous success of Jews in these areas made them frequent and easy targets for anti-Semitic pogroms (often incited by Christian business rivals) as well as legalized extortions by Christian kings and princes.

A similar pattern may be observed with Jews and Arab Christians in the Middle East. From the seventh century onwards, a second-class legal status was imposed upon most Jews and some Arab Christians in parts of the Muslim world. In his History of the Arab Peoples, the Oxford Arabist and historian Albert Hourani (himself an Arab Christian) relates that Jews and Christians in parts of the Middle East were forced to wear special clothes identifying them as non-Muslims. Apart from being obliged to pay special taxes, most Jews and Christians were also banned from carrying weapons and frequently inhibited from participation in civic life.

Hourani notes, however, that these restrictions meant that many Jews and Christians directed their attention to those aspects of the economy where they were allowed some liberty. Eventually, Middle Eastern Jews and Christians dominated particular spheres of economic life throughout the region, including merchant shipping and banking. Likewise those French Protestants who did not flee to England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, or Prussia after Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 often became very successful in certain forms of business, precisely because it was of the few avenues in which they were allowed to compete with French Catholics.

Obviously this is not an argument for restrictions on religious freedom! It is simply an instance of the law of unintended consequences of unjust discrimination against particular religious groups. 

But restrictions on the economic freedom of particular groups can also substantially erode some of the basic protections that we today recognize as flowing from a right to religious liberty. One example is that of Catholics who lived in the England of Elizabeth I and James I.

During this period, successive English parliaments passed a number of acts that slowly stripped Catholics in England of most of their political rights because of their refusal to conform to the Church of England. Usually overlooked, however, is the regime’s attack on English Catholics’ economic liberties. This came in the form of crippling fines levied on recalcitrant Catholics by governments that, not coincidentally, were short on revenue. The same governments restricted the types of business-related activities Catholics were allowed to pursue.

Similar economic restrictions were endured by those Protestants who refused to embrace the Elizabethan religious settlement. Many such Protestants and Catholics consequently migrated to America. But even in the American colonies, economically successful Catholics were constantly fearful that colonial officials would invoke anti-Catholic laws to strip them of much of their wealth. The most famous Catholic in the (Catholic-founded) colony of Maryland, Charles Carroll of Carrollton—the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and the wealthiest man in the American colonies at the time—did not hesitate to state: “Selfish men invented the religious tests to exclude from posts of profit and trust their weaker or more conscientious fellow subjects.”

Perhaps, however, the strongest interest that business has in being attentive to the religious freedom of individuals and groups is the fact that substantive infringements upon one form of freedom often have significant and negative implications for other expressions of human liberty. If, for instance, governments can substantially nullify religious liberty, then they are surely capable of repressing any other civil liberty. This included rights with particular economic significance, such as the right to economic initiative and creativity, property rights, and the freedom of businesses to organize themselves in ways they deem necessary to (1) make a profit and (2) treat employees in ways consistent with the owner’s religious beliefs.

The good news for business, however, is that there is growing evidence that respect for religious freedom tends to correlate with greater economic and business development. One recent academic article, for instance, found (1) a positive relationship between global economic competitiveness and religious freedom, and (2) that religious restrictions and hostilities tended to be detrimental to economic growth.

That said, more work needs to be done in this area. Correlation is not causation. While there do seem to be significant correlations between restrictions on religious liberty and the economic freedom of individuals and corporate bodies, the case for causation requires further elaboration. If, however, the various forms of liberty are as interdependent as they seem to be, business surely has at least a high degree of self-interest in seeing substantive conceptions of religious liberty and the rights and protections associated with religious freedom prevail.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute, and has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, ethics in finance, and natural law theory.

This piece was originally authored on November 19, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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