Five takeaways from the Hobby Lobby case

July 2, 2014


Five things to know about one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions of the year:

1. Corporations can't pray, but they do have religious rights.

Hobby Lobby isn’t a person. It’s a chain of crafts stores owned by a religious family. And though the evangelical Green family objects to parts of the Affordable Care Act’s emergency contraception mandate, it’s not the Greens but the company that writes the check for employees’ health insurance. The first question the justices had to answer was this: Does Hobby Lobby have religious rights? To many Americans, this sounds a little nutty. Does a craft store believe in God? 

A majority of the justices held that a closely held company such as Hobby Lobby does have religious rights. The court didn’t apply those rights, however, to publicly held corporations, where owners’ religious beliefs would be hard to discern. 

But well before the justices had delivered their verdict on this question, many legal scholars said they wouldn’t be surprised were they to affirm the company’s religious rights. American corporations do have some of the rights and responsibilities we usually associate with people. And in the 2010 Citizens United campaign finance case, the justices overturned bans on corporate political spending as a violation of freedom of speech ― corporations’ free speech. 

2. The Affordable Care Act isn’t the only way to get contraception to women. 

The justices in this case interpreted not only the 225-year-old Constitution but also the 21-year-old Religious Freedom Restoration Act. One of the things RFRA says is that if a federal law is going to substantially burden someone’s religious freedom, the feds must make sure that the law uses the “least restrictive means” to achieve its purpose. In this case, the purpose is providing birth control to female employees at no cost. 

Justice Stephen Breyer asked the “least restrictive means” question when this case was argued before the court: Instead of making the company provide insurance that conflicts with its owners’ beliefs, how about the government pays for it? The Supreme Court answered Breyer’s question in the affirmative in this opinion: There are ways of getting contraception to women that don’t substantially burden the Green family’s religious beliefs. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a concurring opinion, suggested the government could pay. 

3. The American people would have ruled differently. 

There are nine U.S. Supreme Court justices and most of them ruled for Hobby Lobby. But what if a softball team composed of a random sample of nine American adults got to decide this case instead? Well, the team would have likely come up with a very different decision. 

In a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, released in April, Americans expressed solid support for the contraception mandate, backing it by a 2-to-1 margin. Kaiser also asked specifically about requiring coverage in the Hobby Lobby scenario: Should a for-profit business owner with religious objections to birth control be subject to the requirement? Again, a majority (55 percent) said yes, they should, “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” 

4. This court is rah-rah religious rights. 

Chief Justice John Roberts’ court is shaping up to be pretty darn protective of that free exercise clause. Less than two months ago, the court ruled 5-4 that the town of Greece, N.Y., could regularly convene town meetings with sectarian Christian prayers. And in 2012, the court ruled 9-0 that a Lutheran school could fire a teacher who had some ministerial responsibilities, despite the government’s argument that her dismissal violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

In all these cases, the court sided with religious rights over other rights. “The Roberts court has been a great champion of religious freedom,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby. 

5. Hobby Lobby won, but the next company to cite religious objections might well lose. 

Contraception mandate fans painted terrible scenarios of religious rights run amok in the case of a Hobby Lobby win. What if a Jehovah’s Witness invokes her religious rights and says she won’t cover blood transfusions in her company’s health plan? What if an employer says vaccinations conflict with his beliefs? 

The Hobby Lobby decision may certainly embolden religious employers to object to laws they consider burdensome. But that doesn’t mean they’re always going to win. The court made clear in this ruling that religion should not always trump the law, and said its decision applies to the contraception mandate, not other insurance mandates. The court also specified that an employer could not use religion to get an exemption from laws that prohibit discrimination ― on the basis of race, for example. The justices were silent, however, on whether employers’ religious beliefs could override laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Also unclear, legal experts say, is how this decision is going to affect religious non-profits and religiously affiliated schools and hospitals that want the same sort of exemption the justices awarded to Hobby Lobby.

  1. Last I remember, God is God, government is not. Why are we more concerned with following Supreme Court decisions than we are God's Word? Social activism is meaningless without Christ and obeying HIS precepts.

    by Reid Weaver

    August 2, 2014

  2. i couldn't agree more with Marcello. I'm not advocating a particular view or insisting my view is correct, much less the only view. I am advocating dialogue about important issues that impact the lives of people in and out of our churches. To retreat inside our walls is simply inexcusable.

    by james shuman

    July 10, 2014

  3. James, the problem is that we often confuse the "viewpoint of the gospel" with our own viewpoint. It's too tempting to turn our opinions into holy dogma. It's too simple to see those who disagree with us as morally inferior. We lack humility. I fail to see how we will survive without it.

    by Marcello

    July 9, 2014

  4. Last time I looked this was religious news. And, more importantly, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell within." I appreciate the sentiments of those who just want to go to church or be church, but church needs to speak to culture (not be captive to culture). So how else do we help folks see the world from the viewpoint of the gospel rather than looking at the gospel from the vantage of the world if we don't know and speak to what is happening around us?

    by james shuman

    July 9, 2014

  5. I agree with Ben. I don't want to go to a liberal church. I don't want to go to a conservative church. I want to go to church. Is that even possible anymore?

    by Marcello

    July 8, 2014

  6. Can someone please explain to me why this reporter is giving their personal spin to a US Supreme Court case? I ask that the Presbyterian Church USA news platform be catered to Presbyterian Church USA news. If this reporter wants to open up their own political blog, fine. Placing secular topics in the name of the Church is not what we should be here for.

    by Ben

    July 5, 2014

  7. Hobby Lobby has no rights. It is not a person. And if the owners are really concerned about abortions, have them stop selling stuff made in China, which has a very high abortion rate and a very dismal record on human rights, including religious freedom.

    by james p shuman

    July 3, 2014

  8. A carefully crafted limited opinion that opens a can of worms. This is not necessarily a court that protects religious freedom but it is a court that protects the so-called rights of corporations. I have yet to see where the Founders thought a business had any personal rights. This is a very slippery slope, one started on by granting corporations (and unions) the right to pay unlimited funds for political ads, and now this. Of course, I wouldn't object to this as much if these now person-corporations paid taxes at the personal level.

    by james p shuman

    July 3, 2014

  9. I agree with the Supreme Court decision and with most of what is written in the article above. The Supreme Court decision is not the death knell for contraceptive coverage, it is merely an obstacle that can be overcome with some effort. I don't agree with Hobby Lobby on many issues, but their right to religious freedom is as important as our own. Let's not forget that.

    by Marcello

    July 3, 2014

  10. I appreciate the coverage of this momentous Supreme Court decision by the RNS & PC USA (PNS). Corporations do no have inalienable (human) rights -- people do. Private corporations should not be able to override federal laws just because the CEO & family-owners object to them on religious or other ground. In any case there is great controversy that any contraceptives could truly be called "abortifacients."

    by Diana Gray

    July 3, 2014

  11. Forgive these snarky reporters, Lord. They know not what they do.

    by Bob Battenfield

    July 3, 2014

  12. To be more specific, HHS mandates coverage for 20 contraceptive items under the ACA. Hobby Lobby currently covers 16 of those 20. As Bruce Apgar correctly comments, Hobby Lobby's objections were specifically to the abortifacients. The Supreme Court decision was widely predicted by knowledgeable experts--protection for closely held companies, but not for publicly traded ones. The article also gets one other thing wrong: the decision was based solely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, not on the Constitution. Justice Alito wrote a tightly crafted opinion based solely on the issue at hand without addressing issues not yet litigated--the judicial norm.

    by Tome Walters

    July 2, 2014

  13. As a Presbyterian in Lexington, Ky I have to agree with Bruce Apgar. There are only 4 abortion producing medications/instruments that are included in the Hobby Lobby suit. The 40 non-abortion producing medications were not included. And it is my understanding that Hobby Lobby has paid for the 40 non-abortion producing medications/instruments in the past. Clearly this has been grossly misrepresented by the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I am a member.

    by Carroll Tarvin

    July 2, 2014

  14. If the law and court decisions were determined by popular opinion of course there might of been a different decision made. However, I believe that there have been restraints in place to keep this from happening thus keeping society from being ruled by the mob. If the Christian Church would have given into popular opinion it would not exist. Please review history--I am glad that the chief justices are not persuaded by popular opinion.

    by James Story

    July 2, 2014

  15. Come on RNS! Get the details right. Bruce Apgar sums it up nicely. This story is closer to advocacy than to journalism.

    by Mike Garrett

    July 2, 2014

  16. Glad for Hobby Lobby, a great place to shop and they are sticking by what they believe. If you need abortion coverage don't work there. Yea for Hobby Lobby

    by Gwen Stover

    July 2, 2014

  17. It was not the contraception mandate that they objected to. It was the 4 specific abortion inducing items. Hobby Lobby's coverage includes 40 non abortion inducing measures that are truly contraceptive - that is preventing conception. You are intentionally distorting the truth and should be journalistically ashamed of yourself.

    by Bruce Apgar

    July 2, 2014

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