Published July 10, 2014
The July 1 decision in the Hobby Lobby case represents a huge win for religious liberty in America, and the 5-4 decision will now stand as a landmark case that will reshape the religious liberty debate for generations to come. At the same time, the deeply divided court also revealed in startling clarity its own internal debates over religious liberty – and that division of understanding at the nation’s highest court is very disturbing indeed.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito declared that the Obama Administration had profoundly failed to meet the demands of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA] and, more importantly, the demands of the U. S. Constitution. By mandating that corporations provide all forms of contraception or birth control for all female employees at no cost, the government had burdened the consciences of the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, Mardel, and Conestoga Wood, the three corporations involved in the decision.
Both companies sued the Obama Administration over the contraception mandate authorized under the Affordable Care Act – a mandate that required them to provide and pay for birth control coverage that would have included four specific forms of birth control that may cause early abortions. Neither company sought a complete escape from the contraception mandate.
The majority opinion handed down today makes several important points worthy of close attention.
First, the Court’s decision affirms the central importance of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 [RFRA]. Interestingly, that Act was made necessary by the Court’s own 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, in which the majority opinion had been written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who joined with Justice Alito in the majority for Hobby Lobby. Responding to that decision, Congress passed RFRA (without a single dissenting vote in the House of Representatives and by a 97 vote majority in the Senate), demanding that any law or policy of the federal government that would violate a citizen’s religious convictions must pass two key tests: It must meet a compelling state interest, and it must do so by “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling state interest.” As Justice Alito stated, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood did not protest against the compelling state interest of the contraception coverage – only against the four specific birth control products that were mandated. Justice Alito and the majority rightly concluded that the Obama Administration had utterly failed the second test. There were any number of alternatives the administration could have taken that would have accomplished its goals without burdening conscience.
Second, Justice Alito reminded all Americans that the designation of any corporation, whether commercial or non-commercial, is vital to individual liberty. Many Americans seem deeply confused about this, but as Justice Alito reminds us all: “A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”
Third, the lead dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reveals a massive ideological divide on the Court that mirrors the divide within the nation at large. Her dissent leads with concerns about the need for contraception and birth control for women and proceeds to dismiss the Christian convictions of the Green and Hahn families as “too attenuated to rank as substantial.” She ignored the fact that the Obama Administration’s policy required the families to facilitate what they believed to be morally wrong, when the government could have accomplished the same result without this requirement.
Some Supreme Court decisions are considered landmarks, even as they are handed down. The Hobby Lobby decision ranks among those. Just consider the fact that had the Court ruled otherwise, religious liberty in America would have taken a very direct hit from which it may well have never recovered. The public debate revealed all over again the fact that we are in a great and enduring battle for religious liberty, for the sanctity of human life, and for an entire range of concerns that are central to biblical conviction. Today’s decision does not settle those issues, but it does represent a much-needed defense of our nation’s cherished “first freedom.”
For that, at the very least, we must be thankful.
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