An Encouraging Victory for Religious Liberty

The Supreme Court has issued a very important ruling on the HHS mandate.  By a narrow 5 to 4 majority, the Court found in favor of the religious liberty rights of two family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.  The Court held that they do not have to fund insurance coverage for abortion-causing contraceptives that they consider to violate their religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.

This is a significant victory for religious liberty. It shows that the government does not have unlimited power to force people to violate their beliefs. It is also a vindication for all those who have objected to the HHS mandate, and who have defended religious freedom.

There has been, and will continue to be, a great deal of commentary on this decision.  At this point, though, it’s valuable to make sure that we understand clearly just what the Court did, and what it did not do:

  • The decision was was based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), and not the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.   However, the Court recognized that RFRA offers broader protection to religious liberty than the First Amendment.
  • The decision does not in any way restrict access to contraceptives, nor will it impose any additional costs on women who seek them.  This ruling is very limited — it just requires the government to find some other way to accomplish the basic (and in my view, lamentable) goal of the HHS mandate — free contraceptives — without requiring the corporations to pay for them.
  • However, the ruling does mean that the government, in pursuit of its public policy goals, cannot impose substantial burdens on religious believers, without seeking some way to accommodate or exempt them.
  • It is not clear what impact this decision will have — if any — on the challenges brought against the HHS mandate by religious non-profit organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic Charities.   There is much speculation about this, even to the point of very close analysis of a particular sentence in the majority opinion, but that’s all it is — speculation.  The Court specifically left that issue open for a future decision.
  • This case upholds the idea that corporations have legal standing under RFRA (in legal parlance, they are “persons” within the meaning of the statute).  The Court recognized that corporations are just vehicles through which real, live human beings act, and, in some cases, exercise their own constitutional rights.  This is an important recognition of the Catholic social teaching about the value of mediating institutions that operate in society and stand between the state and individuals.
  • The ruling was limited by the Court to closely-held corporations that are controlled by religious people who operate with explicitly religious missions.  It does not give carte blanche to all corporations to ignore generally applicable laws.
  • Nor does the case give automatic permission for religious people to engage in discrimination on account of race, sex, etc.  Despite the fear-mongering in the dissenting opinion and in the media, this notion was specifically ruled out in the majority and concurring opinions.  Any claim for a religious exemption will still have to satisfy the scrutiny of a court, applying the standards of RFRA to the particular facts of each individual situation.
  • The Court did not strike down the Affordable Care Act or the HHS mandate in general.  That was not at issue in the case at all.
  • The discussion and debate about this issue, and about the general intersection of law and religion, will certainly continue.  A pluralistic society like ours should recognize and respect a broad scope for the fundamental human right to freedom of conscience, consistent with public order and safety.

    So we have much to be thankful for.  Please give thanks to God for the wisdom of the Justices in the majority of the Supreme Court, and for the courage and persistence of the owners of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood and their attorneys, particularly those at the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom.

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    4 Responses to “An Encouraging Victory for Religious Liberty”

    1. Jann K. Armantrout says:


      Very nice expository piece. Thank you for posting it.

      The moments of victory are sweet, are they not? I was imagining prayers of praise to God for this throughout the country and champagne being uncorked as well.

      Can you expound a bit about the first bullet point – the RFRA providing more protection than the Bill of Rights? Is it because there is more detail to the RFRA?


    2. Ed Mechmann says:

      The current legal standard for the Free Exercise Clause was set in the Supreme Court’s Smith decision (1990). They held that if a law is neutral (i.e., not targeted at religious practices) and generally applicable, there does not have to be any exception or accommodation for those whose religious beliefs are impacted. That was a change from the prior legal standard, which required that any law that puts a substantial burden on the exercise of religion must have a compelling purpose and be narrowly tailored to serve that purpose.

      So the Smith decision made it very, very difficult for a religious person to win a challenge based on the Free Exercise Clause.

      When Smith was decided, there was a great public outcry — a bipartisan reaction, led by the ACLU, Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer! The result was the passage — by a virtually unanimous Congress, and signed by President Clinton — of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which essentially restored the earlier pre-Smith standard. But this is a statutory rule that binds only the federal government, not a constitutional rule that applies to all levels of government (since Congress can’t overrule a Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution).

      So, by applying RFRA to the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case, the Court relied on a standard that gives more protection to religious liberty than if they ruled based on the Free Exercise Clause.

      One of the sad things about our current political climate is that it is doubtful that RFRA would be passed by the current US Senate, and it would probably be vetoed by the President.

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