June 30 2014

Hobby Lobby's Supreme Court Victory

Hadley Heath

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, two family-owned businesses who filed a lawsuit against ObamaCare's contraceptive mandate, won 5-4 at the Supreme Court today.

In plain English, this fairly narrow ruling means that closely-hold corporations (like family-owned businesses that are not publicly traded) do not have to follow the contraception mandate and provide all 20 of the FDA-approved forms of contraception if the corporations have religious objections to the rule. 

Importantly, the Court ruled in answer to Hobby Lobby's argument that this particular mandate was a violation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a statue that laid out clear terms for questions of religious freedom. The RFRA says that regulations like the HHS mandate must avoid putting a substantial burden on religious freedom unless it is 1) serving a compelling public interest and 2) using the least restrictive means to achieve the policy goal.  Here is a relevant excerpt from the decision that underscores where the government went wrong with its legal argument:

The Government has failed to satisfy RFRA’s least- restrictive-means standard. HHS has not shown that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion. The Government could, e.g., assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers’ religious objections. Or it could extend the accommodation that HHS has already established for religious nonprofit organizations to non-profit employers with religious objections to the contraceptive mandate. That accommodation does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion and it still serves HHS’s stated interests.

Here is a link to the majority opinion for any legal eagles who would like to read it! 

Here is a quote from The Independent Women's Forum amicus brief, making a similar argument:

IWF believes the Government can promote public health in other ways. It could, for example, expand eligibility for the federal programs already in existence, offer tax deductions, credits, or federal reimbursements for the purchase of contraceptive services, or provide incentives for pharmaceutical companies to provide products free of charge. Indeed, and ironically, the best way to broaden access to birth control might be to heed the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommendation and make birth control available without a prescription.

 

These cases (the two brought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood were combined at the Supreme Court level) also raised questions about whether the First Amendment freedom of religion applied to them (as corporations). The Court did not address the First Amendment question, and based its ruling on RFRA alone. This is typical; when there is a statue, the Court goes to the statue first and then to the Constitution.

The ruling is a clear win for advocates of limited government. You can read the IWF's statement on today's events here. 

No doubt, the White House and other left-leaning groups will be quick to point out the narrowness of today's ruling. In other words, this ruling doesn't apply to all corporations. The Court only ruled on closely-hold corporations, saying that yes, this type of firm can have religious beliefs. Reasonably, it would be more difficult to tell what the beliefs of a publicly-held corporation are. The Court didn't rule that these firms can't have beliefs; It simply left that question for another day.

But for Hobby Lobby, this ruling is undoubtedly good news. The arts-and-crafts giant was facing potentially millions of dollars in fines because of their refusal to cover a handful of emergency contraceptive methods.  The IWF sincerely congratulates the plaintiffs and many others who worked hard on this case to make a stand for freedom. Today, all of that work paid off. 

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