The Right Prescription

Why SCOTUS Ruled in Favor of Hobby Lobby

Business owners have religious rights like everyone else.

By 6.30.14

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This morning’s Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby will doubtless precipitate a flood of stories from the establishment “news” media claiming that an entrenched cadre of conservative justices have dealt a grievous blow to the reproductive freedom of women and somehow endowed corporations with religious rights. These reports should be ignored as so much hysterical nonsense. What the Court actually said was that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) requires the government to provide closely held corporate objectors to Obamacare’s contraception mandate the same accommodation it already provides nonprofit organizations.

The Green and Hahn families, who own two such closely held corporations, sued the Obama administration because the contraception mandate would have forced them to abandon their religious beliefs or go bankrupt. Both families considered this an outrageous violation of their religious rights as guaranteed by the First Amendment and reiterated by RFRA, a 1993 law passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress and enthusiastically signed by Democrat President Bill Clinton. In a ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court agreed.

In order to understand why, it is necessary to know what Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was really about. More precisely, it’s important to be clear on what it wasn’t about. It never concerned, as Newsweek recently insinuated, whether a corporation can have religious rights. Nor did they involve, as the Huffington Post has fancifully claimed, the separation of church and state. Ironically, countless news stories to the contrary notwithstanding, they weren’t even about contraception—the employee health plans of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties both cover birth control. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was about religious liberty.

As Justice Alito put it in his majority opinion, “We doubt that the Congress that enacted RFRA—or for that matter, ACA—would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans.” In other words, the Court declined to accept the notion that Obamacare and religious freedom are mutually exclusive. The majority essentially held that, though corporations aren’t people, companies like Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties are owned by people. And the religious beliefs of such people cannot be trampled on in the name of “reproductive freedom.”

Thus, Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties won, in a big way. But the Court didn’t provide a broad legal pretext that will allow corporations to run roughshod over employee rights, as Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, has already claimed: “What we saw today was five male justices essentially rule that discrimination against women is not discrimination at all.… They said it’s OK for bosses to make personal decisions about health care which we pay for with our labor.” This is preposterous. First, Justice Alito’s opinion explicitly states that it only applies to a certain type of “closely held” corporation, and that the government has other ways of guaranteeing women access to birth control.

Alito puts it thus: “HHS has already devised and implemented a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious nonprofit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections.…” In other words, Obamacare didn’t need to mandate employer-provided contraceptive coverage. It could have accomplished its ostensible goal, Alito continues, “while providing greater respect for religious liberty. And under RFRA, that conclusion means that enforcement of the HHS contraceptive mandate against the objecting parties in these cases is unlawful.”

Alito’s opinion also disposes of the slippery slope issue raised by the Obama administration and echoed by the dissenting justices. This line of reasoning holds that the ruling will inevitably lead to the denial of insurance coverage to workers for health services unrelated to birth control as well as other types of discrimination. Alito makes it clear that this is not the Court’s intent: “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”

Despite this kind explicit assurance from the Court, the liberal hysteria is already beginning. The usual suspects are predicting all manner of horribles. This was the ruling our progressive friends dreaded, and they refuse to take any solace in how narrowly the opinion is tailored. But the sky really isn’t falling. This is a good day for religious freedom. The Supreme Court has ruled that the owners of for-profit enterprises have basic rights like the rest of us. They don’t have to check their beliefs at the door before entering the family store. That’s a good sign regarding the health of our justice system and for the future of the republic as well. Thus, in the long haul, this victory for the Green and Hahn families is even a victory for liberals.

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About the Author

David Catron is a health care revenue cycle expert who has spent more than twenty years working for and consulting with hospitals and medical practices. He has an MBA from the University of Georgia and blogs at Health Care BS.