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Guest post by Daniel Bennett

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is an unequivocal win for advocates of religious freedom, and a serious blow to advocates of women’s health. But the decision’s implications may not be as sweeping as the activists hope or fear.

This much is clear: the Court ruled 5-4 that Hobby Lobby Stores does not have to provide certain forms of contraceptive coverage to its employees under the Affordable Care Act. The Green family, which owns the corporation, believes that paying for coverage of several mandated forms of contraception are contrary to their religious beliefs. The Court held that the Greens are exempt from these regulations under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Today’s ruling is a vindication—and in some ways, an expansion—of RFRA. In 1993, Congress passed RFRA in response to the Court’s decision that individuals do not receive religious exemptions from a generally applicable, neutral law. According to Justice Scalia, allowing citizens to not follow a general, neutral law because of religious reasons would mean that each citizen would “become a law unto himself.”

Under RFRA, however, such a law can compel someone to violate his religious beliefs only if the government can show that the law is the “least restrictive means” in advancing the government’s interest. The Court ruled that the government did not demonstrate this in the Hobby Lobby case. Hence, the “contraception mandate” does not apply to the Greens.

What does this mean going forward? In the most narrow terms, businesses like Hobby Lobby Stores, which the Court defines as “closely held” in its decision, are exempt from the regulations governing the contraception mandate. Any business owners with sincere religious objections to certain forms of contraception are not required to provide them to their employees via insurance coverage (provided their business meets certain criteria).

Will these business’ female employees now have to pay for certain forms of contraception out of pocket? Probably not – the Obama administration is expected to, through its regulatory power, provide the coverage. Indeed, in his concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy all but invites government to fill this void, arguing that doing so would be much more reasonable than asking employers with religious objections provide such coverage.

And the Court went out of its way to stress the relative narrowness of its decision today. During oral arguments in March, Justice Kagan wondered whether, should the Greens prevail, future employers may deny covering blood transfusions or vaccinations in insurance coverage on religious grounds. Others worried that employers may use this decision to justify discrimination in hiring on religious grounds.

Today’s majority opinion quickly and explicitly dispatched most of these concerns. But the Court did not address whether religious employers denying homosexuals employment would fall under RFRA protection – that is apparently a question for another day.

Caveats aside, the Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby is a crucial win for religious freedom advocates and a disappointment for women’s health advocates. We will need the dust to settle, though, to see the ruling’s true implications for the ongoing church-state balance in American society.

Daniel Bennett, PhD, researches the conservative legal movement. He will be joining the faculty at Eastern Kentucky University this fall.  

Categories: Beliefs, Politics

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Tobin Grant

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

8 Comments

  1. I do not see how this is a victory for religious freedom. This decision is, in fact, a defeat for the religious freedom of ordinary people–and specifically women people, as the religious freedom of employees of Hobby Lobby and, no doubt, a growing stream of other corporations, is impinged, restricted and violated by the religious beliefs of the corporate leadership.

  2. The ironic thing is that corporations were invented to remove the person from the liabilities of owning a business – the corporation is liable for the business’ practices, not the owners. To somehow say that the owners are now the same as the corporation seems to flip that coin over to play the other side. How convenient.

  3. Correctly speaking this is a First Amendment victory. Hobby Lobby is a closely-held corporation that defined by the IRS is owned by 5 or fewer persons and is rarely traded, if ever, publicly. Hobby Lobby’s health care plan still provides 16 out of the 20 FDA approved birth control methods. The 4 birth control methods that Hobby Lobby does not want to pay for are post conception drugs that prevent the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall and therefore terminating the pregnancy. The issue Hobby Lobby has with these drugs and their religious beliefs is that they believe that life begins at conception and that these 4 drugs end life after conception. They have no problem with providing “contraception” i.e. before conception birth control. I find it shameful that the author of this blog and others misrepresent the decision and why the decision occurred. This is a prime example of the intolerance of the left. The Hobby Lobby will allow 75% of the permitted birth control methods on their plan to remain and are arguing about the 25% that they feel exterminates life. Where is the compromise democrats and liberals?

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