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A win for religious liberty

"Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.” — Justice Samuel Alito

Today, the Supreme Court took necessary steps to clarify and re-assert America’s lasting commitment to the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty.

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court announced  a ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. Both for-profit companies took issue with the Obama administration’s HHS Mandate—an odious provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires all for-profit companies to cover abortion-inducing drugs—even against the religious objections of these businesses’ owners. What was at stake in this ruling is whether the government could force private citizens to pay for medical devices that some fear cause abortions. The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood stood for their conscience, while the coercive nature of the HHS Mandate sought to pave over the religious and moral conscience.

The Green and Hahn families’ (the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, respectively) objections to the regulation stemmed from the core principles of their Christian faith, and their desire to “operate their company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.” While willing to provide coverage for 16 of 20 contraceptives, the Green family felt they could not, in good conscience, provide their employees with free access to four contraceptive devices that they fear could cause an abortion.

In affirming Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood’s right to a moral objection to certain contraceptives, the Supreme Court affirmed religious liberty for all Americans, not just for Christians, not just for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, and not just for the Green and Hahn families.

The ruling was narrowly tailored to include only closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. Moreover, the decision keeps in place the Health and Human Services Mandate—which faces continued legal opposition from organizations such as Little Sisters of the Poor.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion and offered key arguments in defense of religious liberty.

The majority opinion found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to closely held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby. According to the opinion:

Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons.” But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends.

The Court also rejected claims that corporations can’t act in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction. As the majority opinion goes on to say,

While it is certainly true that a central objective of for-profit corporations is to make money, modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so. For-profit corporations, with ownership approval, support a wide variety of charitable causes, and it is not at all uncommon for such corporations to further humanitarian and other altruistic objectives.        

Alito’s argument also factors in the government’s inability to have met the least restrictive means test of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Because the government could not cross this threshold, Alito and the other justices were insistent that other steps could have been taken by the government to prevent infringing upon religious liberty.

The least-restrictive-means standard is exceptionally demanding… and it is not satisfied here. HHS has not shown that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objective parties in these cases.

In one section of the majority opinion, the Supreme Court refused to play the part of a theological referee by refusing to adjudicate highly complex issues related to theology and ethics. As Alito writes,

This belief implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophic question, HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step.

Similarly, in these cases, the Hans and Greens and their companies sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial. Instead, our “narrow function… in this context is to determine” whether the line drawn reflects “an honest conviction,” and there is no dispute that it does.         

There’s a lot more that could be said about today’s historic ruling in favor of religious liberty—for the decision is multifaceted. But the implication of today’s ruling is this: Religious liberty isn’t something that can be checked at the door just because someone decides to open a business.

Lastly, the optics outside the courtroom are also important. The irony of today is that opponents of Hobby Lobby cast their lot in making this yet another plank in evangelicalism’s supposed “War on Women.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Outside the Supreme Court, those who spoke up in defense of religious liberty were not spokesmen, but spokeswomen. Those opposed to Hobby Lobby and Conestoga want to make this an issue about denying access to contraception, which simply isn’t true. As previously mentioned, Hobby Lobby is willing to provide 16 out of 20 contraceptive devices. When opponents insist that this is an issue that belittles women or puts bosses in place of women making their own healthcare decisions, don’t believe it for a minute. 

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