The most generous reading of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision June 30 in the so-called Hobby Lobby case is that it narrowly upheld the right of deeply religious business owners not to be forced by the government to violate their beliefs.
The majority took pains to say how limited the decision is. It applies to closely held corporations, not necessarily publicly traded ones. It doesn’t endorse exemptions for vaccinations or blood transfusions. Furthermore, it doesn’t provide a shield for illegal discrimination cloaked as religious practice.
Even raising these issues, the court crossed a threshold, extending legal guarantees of religious freedom to for-profit businesses, with uncertain and potentially troubling consequences.
The dispute tested whether two private, for-profit companies run by devout owners — craft store Hobby Lobby and cabinet-maker Conestoga Wood Specialties — should have to comply with the Obamacare mandate that virtually all health policies must cover all U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved forms of contraception.
The court held that while the government demonstrated a compelling interest in requiring coverage of contraception, it failed to meet a second standard of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act: that it do so by the least-restrictive means possible.
If that turns out to be the limit of the court’s ruling, it could be seen as a reasonable compromise in pursuit of religious freedom. But the four dissenting justices argued forcefully that the decision is potentially much broader, and if they’re right, the implications would be far-reaching and worrisome.
For the first time, the court found that a for-profit private business can exercise religious principles the same way individuals can. Much as the court’s Citizens United ruling held that corporations can exercise free-speech rights by freely spending money in political campaigns, this could open the door to consequences less benign or narrow than protecting the deeply held religious beliefs of devout business owners.
The court said it was limiting its ruling to “closely held” businesses — typically companies run by a single owner or a family. But beyond saying it didn’t think large, publicly held corporations would ask for the same exemption, it did not rule out broadening the exemption to other businesses that assert religious beliefs.
The majority said the ruling doesn’t “necessarily” mean companies can expect exemptions from other medical care barred by various faiths, such as blood transfusions, vaccinations, psychiatric care or even medical care itself. But it did not directly rule out such claims. While the court warned companies that they shouldn’t expect to be able to assert a religious right to escape taxation or anti-discrimination laws, it left the door open for companies to challenge virtually any other law on religious grounds.
This potentially puts government in the position of judging whether a business’ religious principles merit special treatment that more secular competitors don’t get. That’s a disturbing prospect.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg worried that the decision of “startling breadth” misuses the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to undo decades of decisions that have denied religious exemptions from laws that apply evenly to al lrivate businesses or individuals.
That could unleash “havoc” — Ginsburg’s word — as companies seek to tailor regulation to their concept of faith, potentially violating the rights of employees who may not share their owners’ religious convictions and resent having those beliefs imposed on their health-care choices.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, said the dissenters’ interpretation was flatly wrong, and Justice Anthony Kennedy punctuated the point in a concurring opinion, so clarity about how far the decision reaches will have to await future cases.
The Hobby Lobby ruling assures that there will be many of them. Even the workaround for nonprofits that Alito endorsed is challenged by nonprofits that think it infringes religious liberty.
The court seems unlikely to reject that alternative, having just held it out as an example of an acceptable, more narrowly tailored solution, so it may yet find a way to strike a balance. But by once again treating corporations as people, it made that task harder.
— LIVINGSTON DAILY PRESS AND ARGUS