June 30, 2014
The decision of the Supreme Court today in the Hobby Lobby case protects the religious liberties of the closely held for-profit corporations objecting to providing abortifacient contraceptives. However, there is much else in the decision to be concerned about for future religious liberty challenges. There are also things in some of the opinions that ought to be downright frightening to religious liberty advocates.
First, there are several aspects of the decision that are good. The Court recognized that corporations are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Limited for now to closely held corporations, the Court embraced the important fact that corporations exist to further the interests of their constituents, such as shareholders and officers. If for-profit corporations could not exercise religion, religious individuals would be faced with a nigh impossible “Hobson’s choice” of maintaining their religious rights and forgoing the significant advantages of the corporate form, or incorporating and giving up their religious rights.
As importantly, the Court refused to accept the government’s attempt to re-characterize and minimize the Hahn’s and Green’s religious objection. The government sought to characterize the objection as only relating to the use of abortifacient contraceptives directly, ignoring completely the religious nature of their objection to complicity in providing access to the contraceptives at issues. The Court wisely refused to accept that re-characterization, stating that it was not the Court’s job to evaluate the validity of the individual’s belief.
Those two things are rightfully a cause for celebration, but the Court’s decision leaves much else to be desired. The first thing that should cause religious liberty advocates to be concerned is the Court’s treatment of the compelling interest test. Although the majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, expressed skepticism of the idea that providing contraception coverage was a compelling state interest in the face of all the other exception, Justice Alito expressly declined to rule on that question. He assumed for the purposes of the rest of the decision that the government had a compelling interest in providing universal contraceptive coverage. That is not necessarily a problem, the Court often assumes issues without deciding them if the case can be decided on other grounds. However, what is clear from Justice Kennedy’s concurrence is the reason they assumed that answer without deciding it: Justice Kennedy believes it is compelling government interest and therefore would not have joined the majority if they had decided against the government on that question.
Justice Kennedy’s concurrence provides another cause for concern. Because he necessarily provides the fifth vote in a 5-4 decision like this, his opinion, limiting the majority’s holding, controls. Unfortunately, he bases the decision that the contraceptive mandate is not the required “least restrictive means” on the availability of the accommodation provided to religious non-profits. That is, he decided that the government’s decision to allow religious non-profits to be exempt from coverage but force the insurance company to provide the abortifacient contraceptives was sufficient for for-profit corporations as well. This foreshadows a defeat in the case by some of those religious non-profits challenging the requirement that they be complicit in arranging the alternative coverage. Even though the 11th Circuit just sustained one such challenge based on today’s ruling, it appears likely the Supreme Court will not have a majority for upholding that decision. Although the majority of the Court expressly declined to decide that question, the Kennedy’s concurrence makes it unlikely he will join with the four others in today’s majority to rule in favor of those entities in a later decision.
Justice Ginsburg’s dissent provides what is the ugliest (and most frightening) part of today’s decision. Although she was in dissent, her manifest contempt for you and I should concern us. She dismisses as “ilk” those who believe in Biblical sexual morals and lumps them in with racists. Unfortunately, the majority, in dismissing her concerns, leaves the door open to holding the government can rightfully make Biblical sexual morals illegal in the workplace. Although the majority, rightfully, responds to Justice Ginsburg’s criticism by stating today’s decision does not threaten laws prohibiting racial discrimination, the majority doesn’t defend the right of individual’s to conduct their business in accord with Biblical sexual morals.
Although today’s decision is rightfully a cause to celebrate, it also leaves a lot to be desired for protecting religious liberty in the public square.