Fmr. WashPost Editor Steve Coll Invokes Taliban in Critique of Hobby Lobby Ruling

If you’re choosing one person who best represents America’s journalistic establishment, it’d be hard to top Steve Coll, a former Washington Post reporter and managing editor who’s now dean of Columbia University’s journalism school; a member of the Pulitzer Prize board; and a staff writer for the New Yorker.

On Wednesday, Coll posted a piece on the New Yorker’s website in which he argued that if the Supreme Court were to consistently apply the religious-freedom principle it endorsed in the Hobby Lobby case, it would have to allow an essentially Taliban-owned U.S. corporation to deny insurance coverage for polio vaccines for the children of its employees, since the Taliban believe that such vaccines, in Coll’s words, “violate God’s law.”


Coll suspects that in the Hobby Lobby decision, the SCOTUS majority was politically motivated: “Four longtime adherents to the deeply rooted conservative movement to limit or ban abortion in the United States, joined by a fifth willing to defer to them, saw in the Hobby case an opportunity to advance their cause incrementally, and they reasoned to achieve that end—not, as their opinion claims, to construct a sustainable framework of religious resistance to public-health laws.”

From Coll’s piece (emphasis added):

Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, is a closely held, profit-making enterprise organized on religious principles. One of its principles…is that children should not be inoculated against polio, because the vaccines violate God’s law. So sincere are the Taliban’s religious beliefs that its followers have assassinated scores of public-health workers who have attempted to administer polio vaccines in areas under Taliban control or influence…

If the Pakistani Taliban, aided by clever lawyers, organized a closely held American corporation, and professed to run it on religious principles, might its employees be deprived of insurance coverage to inoculate their children against polio? And would the Supreme Court, by the five-to-four decision issued on Monday in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell, endorse such a move?

…[T]he Taliban would have to overcome its awkward position as a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization under American law. Shooting health workers with whom the Taliban disagrees would also be out of the question, since such acts would bring into play other strands of American law, such as the prohibition on homicide…But these are obstacles that the Taliban’s lawyers, if they were good ones, might well overcome. The Taliban could inspire American followers to put together a corporate charter separately and independently, without any financial or military links to the banned mother organization. And the American offshoot could learn to hire lobbyists rather than gunmen...

Perhaps the Supreme Court’s majority cannot fully imagine that religiously motivated litigants—Muslim, Christian Scientist, Hindu, or other—as qualified and as American as the Hobby Lobby owners might ultimately use Monday’s ruling to enforce beliefs far outside of the decades-long campaign of Christian evangelicals and Catholics to limit the reproductive rights of women. If so, that is another failure of their reasoning, one that exposes what really seems to have gone on in this decision: four longtime adherents to the deeply rooted conservative movement to limit or ban abortion in the United States, joined by a fifth willing to defer to them, saw in the Hobby case an opportunity to advance their cause incrementally, and they reasoned to achieve that end—not, as their opinion claims, to construct a sustainable framework of religious resistance to public-health laws...

…[T]he impact on children, living and unborn, of the Taliban public policy on vaccines is not, arguably, different in category from the impact that the Hobby Lobby decision will likely have on the families of those who work at companies whose owners claim to run them on Christian principles, in one respect: the extrapolation of religious beliefs into public policy will damage the over-all health of affected families. The health consequences of failing to vaccinate children may be more predictable than the health consequences of blocking access to effective contraception. But, in both cases, there is no doubt that the consequences will be harmful…

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters