WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday (June 30) sided with the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., ruling 5-4 that the arts-and-crafts chain does not have to offer insurance for four types of birth control that conflict with company owners’ religious beliefs.
Beyond the specifics of the Hobby Lobby case before them, the justices broke new legal ground by affirming that corporations, not just individual Americans or religious nonprofits, may claim religious rights.
Does Monday’s decision mean, however, that the religious beliefs of business owners stand paramount — that they are more important than a female employee’s right to choose from the full array of birth control methods she is promised under the Affordable Care Act? Does the ruling mean business owners may invoke their religious rights to deny service to a gay couple?
Not necessarily, legal experts say.
The decision for Hobby Lobby, the justices made clear, applies to privately held companies such as Hobby Lobby — not vast publicly held corporations, for which the owners’ religious beliefs would be difficult to discern.
But in general, the ruling — one of the most anticipated in the high court’s current session — is a victory for conservatives who had hoped the justices would find that the federal government had trampled on the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.
“This case demonstrates that Americans don’t give up their religious freedom when they open a family business,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby. “The court understands that religion isn’t limited to what you do in a synagogue on Saturday or a church on Sunday.”
Those disappointed with the ruling faulted the justices for granting religious rights to corporations and compromising women’s health.
“This decision is a double-edged disaster,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It conjures up fake religious freedom rights for corporations while being blind to the importance of birth control to America’s working women.
“While the Obama administration may arrange for the government to provide contraceptives, a future administration could easily take that away,” Lynn continued. “In years to come, many women may find their access to birth control hanging by a thread.”
What the majority opinion says:
— The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sets a high bar for any federal law that restricts religious practice, applies to closely held for-profit businesses.
— Though employers at such companies can’t be forced to cover emergency contraception that conflicts with their religious beliefs, that doesn’t mean religious employers can refuse to cover any medical procedure — blood transfusions or vaccinations, for example — that conflicts with personal religious beliefs.
— The government could have found a way to achieve the goals of the Affordable Heath Act’s so-called contraception mandate without impinging on religious rights, a RFRA requirement.
Lawyers for Hobby Lobby argued that President Obama’s landmark health care law, had overstepped when it required the company and another owned by a Mennonite family — Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. — to insure employees for birth control the companies’ owners found contrary to their Christian beliefs.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito, and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, also wrote a concurring opinion. The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayer and in part by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. Kagan and Breyer also wrote a separate dissent.
The justices’ affirmation of religious rights in the Hobby Lobby case falls in line with two other major religion cases in the past three years, making clear the court’s intention to preserve religious rights when they compete with others or conflict with anti-discrimination laws.
In the Hosanna-Tabor case in 2012, the court backed a Lutheran school that had fired a teacher who claimed she had been discriminated against under the Americans With Disabilities Act. In Greece v. Galloway in May, the court approved sectarian prayers, or invocations, at the start of government meetings.
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