The US Supreme Court has delivered its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, ruling that the store does not have to provide abortifacients as part of its health care coverage. Requiring the store to do so violates the owners’ religious freedom.



The case also involved another company, Conestoga Wood, owned by the Mennonite Christian family the Hahns. The ruling applies to both companies.



Under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “ObamaCare”, companies were required to provide health care coverage which included contraception. This included several types of contraception that cause the destruction of a fertilised egg, including the “morning-after pill”.



The Hahn family and the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family, refused to provide these types of contraception. They argued that forcing them to provide the contraception violated their religious liberty, and that this liberty is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).



The RFRA was passed in 1993 and protects a person’s right to exercise their religion free from a substantial burden.



The Court accepted these arguments, allowing Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to abstain from covering abortifacient contraception in its health care coverage.



The case, Burwell v Hobby Lobby, is a small but significant win for religious freedom in America, and will be an important precedent for a number of similar cases involving companies owned by Christians. The case will also affect a number of other cases making their way through the court system involving not-for-profit organisations.



Justice Kennedy said in his judgment:

In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief. It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.


There can be no more fundamental principle in a free society than the freedom of citizens to act in accordance with the faith. This includes more than a freedom to belong to a particular religious community. It also includes the freedom to manifest one’s faith in the wider society, including in political, civic, and economic life.



Read on for more details, and for links to further analysis.







In a 5-4 decision, the Court made several important points:



1. The RFRA covers for-profit corporations.



The RFRA protects the religious liberty of “persons”, and a key question was whether Hobby Lobby is a “person” for the purposes of the RFRA.



All parties in the case agreed that the RFRA covered certain non-profit corporations. The Court in this case decided that it also covers for-profit corporations, at least “closely held” corporations. A “closely held” corporation is one owned by a small number of investors and typically includes family-owned businesses such as Hobby Lobby.



As Justice Samuel Alito explained in his judgment, the 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 corporations... Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.


2. The government did not use the “least restrictive means” of achieving its goal



A government can infringe upon religious liberty only if there is a “compelling government interest” and only if it uses the “least restrictive means” for doing so.



The Court did not consider whether there was a “compelling government interest” to mandate that companies provide abortifacient birth control to their employees. It did, however, decide that the government could use means which are less restrictive of religious freedom. In deciding this, the Court pointed out that the government already provides exemptions to non-profit corporations, evidence that exempting corporations from the mandate does not undermine its purpose.



3. The government cannot decide what a person’s religious convictions are



The government argued that the Greens and the Hahns should have no objection to providing abortifacient contraception. The Court dismissed this argument, Justice Alito saying:

It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.


This is perhaps the most significant part of the judgment from a religious liberty point of view. The Court is upholding the intent of the RFRA, which is to protect the free exercise of religion. The RFRA itself upholds the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.



 



The Court was divided along ideological lines, fairly typically for cases of this sort. Liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented, with Justice Ginsburg authoring a 35-page dissenting judgment. The conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito were joined by Anthony Kennedy, who often makes the deciding vote when the court is divided.



For more detailed analysis, see these links:



Article by Ryan T Anderson from the Witherspoon Institute.



Analysis from Professor Mark Rienzi, a lawyer who argues similar cases with the Becket Foundation.



A clear explanation of the main issues by Napp Nazworth from the Christian Post.



Click here to read the Supreme Court's judgment.