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Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Decision: A Narrow Win that Leaves a Narrow Precedent

The U.S. Supreme Court held today in a 5-4 decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, that a closely held corporation is exempt from Obamacare’s contraceptive/abortifacient mandate when abortion violates the religious beliefs of the corporate owners.  However, the decision is very limited.  It specifically states that this religious exemption, made under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—not the First Amendment—is specifically limited to the contraception/abortifacient mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and should not be extended to other insurance issues, like vaccinations or non-medical mandates, where other public policy mandates might override the religious accommodation under RFRA.

Those who were hoping this decision might also provide the basis for religious accommodations for corporations opposed to redefining marriage (like wedding cake bakers and photographers) are disappointed. Potentially leaving the door open for future cases pertaining to businesses' religious beliefs on traditional marriage, the Court said that the ruling does not "provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice."

The lawsuit in the case was brought by Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based chain with about 13,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker. Both companies objected to the government’s required employee insurance payments for birth control – and specifically for abortion-inducing birth control.

The question presented to the Court in this case was whether any law, such as a nationwide government-imposed health-care insurance system, could require people of religious faith to violate that faith by providing for contraception/abortifacient insurance coverage.  The underlying question was whether a for-profit corporation could be considered a “person” for purposes of such a religious accommodation under RFRA.

Obamacare was originally intended to mandate that every individual and entity be forced to provide contraception/abortifacient insurance coverage for all employees, although religious entities themselves could seek an exemption. Such accommodations have been provided for churches and some religious nonprofits.  In those cases, the government—through the tax dollars of citizens—then pays for the contraceptive/abortifacient insurance coverage.

The court opinion said, “HHS argues that the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies, but that would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations. RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice.”

The opinion continued, “[RFRA] employed the familiar legal fiction of including corporations within RFRA’s definition of ‘persons,’ but the purpose of extending rights to corporations is to protect the rights of people associated with the corporation, including shareholders, officers, and employees. Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of humans who own and control them.”

While this is a victory for religious accommodation, particularly for small, closely held corporations, it is a narrow victory limited to the ACA’s contraception/abortifacient mandate. This victory does not negate the need to repeal and replace Obamacare if citizens are to maintain their liberties, including their religious liberties, since tax dollars will provide for the contraceptive/abortifacient insurance coverage in lieu of those corporations whose religious belief requires the accommodation.