Citizen’s United Strikes Again: Understanding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

On June 30, 2014, the long discussed Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, was decided. This important case essentially covers the question of whether for-profit corporations with religious objections to certain kinds of ‘abortive’ birth control methods could be exempt from ACA provisions, which mandate that the aforementioned corporations provide coverage for those kinds of birth control. The owners of Hobby Lobby are pro life Christians who did not believe it was fair of them to have to spend millions of dollars providing ‘abortive’ contraceptive coverage to employees, and argued that it imposed a significant burden on their business under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, with Justice Samuel Alito writing its opinion.

While we could go on and on about the legal background of the case and every precedent that went into the decision, I would rather defer readers to the opinion itself, which I have linked above or to the highlights of the case, which can be found here. To sum things up, the case seemed to hinge on two main legal questions: whether for profit corporations should be given religious liberty under the RFRA, and whether the ACA contraceptive mandate actually violated the RFRA.

The Court decided to grant corporations protection for their religious beliefs under the RFRA under the premise that, because corporations are legal fictions intended to protect people, when the rule of law is extended to protect corporations, that people are the ones being protected. This decision’s logic is similar to the court’s previous Citizen’s United decision, which also decided to treat corporations as people and gave them the ability to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns. This reasoning was also found in Hobby Lobby’s case to the Tenth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

With the Court deciding that the RFRA should be applied to the case at hand, they then focused their attention to whether the ACA contraceptive mandate actually violated the law. There were two major criteria used to determine this. First of all, the government had to have a compelling interest to violate one’s religious liberties. The Court gave the government the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they had a compelling interest. The second criteria was that the government’s policy had to be the least restrictive option available. It was determined that this was not the case, and the Court suggested some less intrusive alternatives. The first of which would be for the government to bear the costs itself by providing contraception directly via a program or by offering tax credits to offset the cost. The other alternative was what is present for religious nonprofits today: that corporations could simply opt out of coverage on that particular issue, and that insurance companies would have to offer a separate plan to employees directly in order to shift the financial burden away from the corporation.

What was missing from the majority’s opinion, but present in Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissenting opinion, was empathy for the employees of these religious corporations. Ginsberg pointed out that women often go without birth control when it is not covered by insurance, and that this has problematic effects. That being said, the majority’s decision that insurance companies should offer separate plans that the employees pay for out of their pockets is probably not much of an alternative at all. Ginsberg took it a step further than this and said that the option for the government to pay for contraceptives themselves is a dangerous precedent which could be used any time anyone claims a religious exemption that involves some sort of financial burden. The majority’s opinion also failed to take into consideration the religious liberty of the employees and how this could have the religious views of their employers forced upon them. The biggest problems Ginsberg had with the majority opinion had to do with the precedents that this decision has made. She thinks that it paves the path for religious owners of corporations to reject other forms of health coverage. For example, a Jehovah’s Witness could cite their doctrine to refuse to cover blood transfusions. She also thinks that this would allow corporations to reject any law, except for tax laws. The conservative side of the court seems to dismiss these criticisms, arguing that the ruling is intended to be narrow and situational to this case alone, but many remain unconvinced.

As for my opinion on the case, I do not have a problem with the RFRA itself, and think that it attempts to strike a decent balance between an individual’s right to their religion and the law in principle. We are a country built on religious liberty and it should apply to all, believers and nonbelievers alike. It could be said, as Ginsberg pointed out, that the majority did a poor job expressing valid alternatives to the contraception mandate, but that is debatable. While the option for employees to pay for separate coverage out of one’s pockets is not really a valid alternative at all, I think that there could be a debate surrounding the alternative of a government program. Ginsberg makes a good point that simply shifting the burden to the government whenever a case of this nature arises sets a bad precedent, but at the same time, it would technically be less intrusive than a mandate would be. The major problem with this ruling is the fact that it furthered the concept of corporate personhood. The RFRA was never intended to apply to corporations, and trying to make it do so appears to be a blatant attempt at judicial activism on the part of the conservative side of the Court. The law itself discusses individuals, not corporations. Expanding laws intended for individuals to corporations is a dangerous precedent because corporations often wield far more power in and of themselves than individuals do. In the case of Citizens United, they have far more resources to donate to campaigns than individuals normally do, giving them far more influence, and in the case of Hobby Lobby, they now have the ability to impose their religious views on their workers. Keep in mind, employer-employee relationships are rarely equal, and when corporate rights conflict with individual rights, individuals often end up on the short end of the agreement. That being said, this case essentially gives businesses the right to shove their religious views down others’ throats in the name of “religious freedom.” Considering how atheists are an often discriminated against minority in this country, this case has dealt a major blow to nonbelievers working for Christian companies. This precedent is so dangerous that even repealing the RFRA like the Freedom From Religion Foundation would like to do may not solve the problem; a new law or legal standard set up by the Court would likely replace it and it could once again simply be applied to corporations, bringing us back to a similar situation. Even if the new standard is weaker like the FFRF seems to think it would be, that does not change the fact that corporations are essentially given the same rights as individuals, which allows them to impose their will on individuals. On the other hand, if the Citizens United thinking that led to the decision that corporations should be granted individual rights were overturned, this decision would likely be thrown out as well. This is what happened in the case Conestoga Woods Specialties v. Burwell, a similar case decided by the Third Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which was effectively overturned by this new Supreme Court decision. The democrats in the Senate already seem to have the right idea and are working on a bill to stop employers from opting out of providing coverage based on religious reasons. I do not, however, share the concerns of the dissenting opinion of the Supreme Court that this decision would allow corporations to avoid almost any law that they want; this is not even the case for individuals. Reynolds v. U.S. established the supremacy of secular law long ago, stating that if religious people could opt out of any law, then laws would be meaningless. That being said, it appears Ginsberg’s fears here are unfounded. As dangerous as this ruling is, it does not invalidate all laws corporations have to follow.

In short, the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case was decided 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, which allowed them to be exempt from the contraception mandate under the ACA on the grounds of religious objection. Ultimately, it was a great win for the corporations, but a loss for the people, particularly people who do not share the religious views of the owners of companies like Hobby Lobby. The court essentially extended corporate personhood to apply to RFRA, while completely ignoring (in the majority opinion at least) the rights of the employees who the employers’ beliefs affect. Despite arguments about the ruling being narrow, it seemed to set some rather dangerous precedents in the future, as the dissenting opinion has pointed out. After applying the RFRA to corporations, they then struck down the contraceptive mandate on the grounds that it was not the least intrusive way to ensure that employees can get contraceptive coverage. They argue that the government could provide it itself, or that insurance companies could offer separate coverage that employers would not have to pay for, similar to what those getting insurance from religious nonprofits do now. This ruling is not dangerous simply because of the RFRA, but because the RFRA was never intended to be applied to corporations, and by giving corporations the right of individuals, corporations can now impose their religious views on individuals when there is a conflict between individual rights and corporate rights.

J.W is an ex-Christian with a lot of interesting things to say. He argues passionately about religion and politics, and bases his views on logic, reason, and evidence. He has degrees related to the social sciences with an emphasis on political science. You won’t learn anymore about him though;he prefers the anonymity of the internet!

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