Such is the state of American law and of American society that the decision of a single Colorado baker not to make a cake for a customer because of his religious objection to what the cake was for will now go before the Supreme Court. Argument in the “cake case,” Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, will take place next Tuesday, December 5th.
Oregon’s Governor has said she will sign legislation that will require insurance companies (with one exception) to provide their beneficiaries, at no cost, and for any reason, abortions and contraceptive drugs that can be abortifacients. California has a similar law. Unlike California’s law, churches and religious organizations that object to abortion and/or contraception are exempt, but there is no protection for business owners who desire to use any insurance company other than Providence Health Plans (the one faith-based insurance company that was exempted). The Oregon legislation also expands state funding to pay for abortions for citizens and non-citizens who do not have private insurance.
My late leader of days long gone, the first Mayor Daley of Chicago, once poured out his heart about life in the political arena: “I have been vilified, I have been crucified, I have been ….criticized!” Well, I haven’t been vilified or crucified, but I have been criticized vigorously for my writings in this space on the reasoning in the Hobby Lobby case, and criticized by a long-time friend, the Editor of the Public Discourse, Ryan Anderson. My response reveals his critique, while at the same time it may sharpen and deepen the argument.
This week it’s the Hobby Lobby decision and the “contraception mandate” that are provoking discussion. But beyond the specific facts and carefully narrow decision in Hobby Lobby runs a more general and perennial question: Does freedom of religion mean that sincere religious objectors have a qualified (not categorical) right to be exempted from otherwise applicable laws– a draft law, a compulsory schooling law, a regulation requiring employers to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and some abortifacients? At least according to the conventional wisdom, the Supreme Court’s answer to that question for many decades was “no.”
Count me as a part of that population that rejoiced over the outcome in the Hobby Lobby case. It was a relief that the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores, and the Hahns, owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, were delivered from the mandates of Obamacare; the mandates that compelled these families to cover abortifacients in the medical care they funded so generously for their employees. Justice Alito also did a notable service in making clear that a “corporation” is an association of “human persons”: Every association is directed to a purpose; and there is no principle that determines that this kind of corporation, alone among all other associations, may not be committed to moral and religious purposes, apart from the making of money.
The Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. On both the standing and merits questions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal government lost. In a 5-4 majority decision authored by Justice Alito, the Court held that:
- Closely held for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby are “persons” within the compass of RFRA and can exercise religion (Justices Breyer and Kagan did not decide this issue one way or the other);
- Closely held for-profit corporations that have religious objections to providing contraception as part of their employee health plans suffer a substantial burden on their religious exercise by operation of the contraception mandate; and
- Even if the government’s broadly formulated interests in “public health” and “gender equality” are compelling (a question left undecided by the majority opinion but seemingly embraced in Justice Kennedy’s concurrence), the government nevertheless has failed to achieve its interests by the least restrictive means.
The least restrictive means portion of the analysis was always the most difficult part of the test for mandate supporters. It is, as the Court said, “exceptionally demanding and it is not satisfied here.”
Frederick Gedicks, who holds the Guy Anderson Chair at Brigham Young University Law School, recently argued in the Washington Post that to permit Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the two companies challenging the contraception mandate on religious liberty grounds, to receive an exemption from its strictures would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Gedicks argues that granting the exemption would, in effect, make employees of these companies pay the costs of their employers practicing their religion: