On its surface, this case appears to be a rather dull dispute about paperwork. But it actually gets to a much more fundamental question about what kinds of demands for special privileges people and organizations can make of the government on the basis of their religious beliefs.
One of the central points Alito made in the Hobby Lobby decision was that the company could be exempted from the law’s requirement that insurance plans cover contraception because there was a less restrictive means for the government to achieve its goal. This less restrictive means, he said, was the procedure the government had set up for religious non-profits: the group signs a form stating its objection and gives a copy to the government and to its third-party insurance administrator, which will can then arrange for people to get contraception without the non-profit’s involvement or money. The fact that this procedure exists is what Justice Alito himself cited in the Hobby Lobby decision as proof that there was a less restrictive means for the government to accomplish its goal of guaranteeing preventive care, and for Hobby Lobby to keep clear of any involvement in contraception.
Yet in yesterday’s order, the conservative justices said this procedure — signing a form — is itself an unacceptable “burden” on Wheaton College’s religious freedom.
We don’t have to get into the administrative nightmare this could cause. (The dissent describes it well.) But the point is that there is seemingly no length this Court says the government shouldn’t go to accommodate this particular religious belief. A company or a university doesn’t want to follow the law? Well, we have to respect that — they can just sign a form stating their objection. Oh, they don’t want to sign the form? Well never mind, they don’t have to do that either.
When the Hobby Lobby decision came down on Monday, liberals warned that it was going to open the floodgates to all kinds of claims in which people would say that their “sincerely held” religious beliefs should excuse them from following the law. “My religion tells me I shouldn’t serve black people in my restaurant.” “My religion tells me not to pay sales taxes.” “My religion tells me that I should operate a brothel on my suburban cul de sac.”
But Alito wrote that that wouldn’t be a problem because in those kinds of cases the government was already employing the least restrictive means available to accomplish its legitimate goals, whether it’s stopping discrimination or collecting taxes or preventing prostitution. What the Wheaton College injunction shows, however, is that it matters very much who’s claiming that the law doesn’t apply to them. As much as the Court’s majority might want to believe their rulings are based in abstract principles that would apply to anyone, if you think they’d be working so hard to accommodate the claims for privilege of Muslims or Hindus or members of religious groups that the five conservatives on the Court do not have such an affinity for, you’re fooling yourself.
For some time now, conservatives have been claiming there’s a “war on religion” in America, but what they really want is special privileges, not for religion in general but for certain religions. They want government meetings to start with their prayers, they want their scriptures pinned on the walls of courthouses, they want everyone to celebrate their holidays and when they find the law displeasing — whether it’s a law about health care or discrimination or anything else — they want an exemption carved out just for them.
As important as the Hobby Lobby case is, it may be the seemingly small Wheaton College injunction that has the real effects. That’s because it’s a clear signal to everyone that the Hobby Lobby decision is infinitely flexible. As long as you liked the ruling, you don’t have to worry about whether the Court’s reasoning actually applies to your situation, because the Court doesn’t care. Go ahead and say the law doesn’t apply to you. As long as you say it’s because of your religion — provided it’s the right religion, and a belief like an abhorrence of contraception that the Court’s conservative majority shares — you’ll probably get away with it. And make no mistake: There are going to be a huge number of organizations, businesses, and individuals — probably thousands — that are going to try.