In a 5-4 decision with a splintered dissent, the Supreme Court held that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) cannot mandate a closely held corporation to violate the religious beliefs of its owner by providing four abortion-inducing drugs. Specifically, the court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 requires the government to accommodate such corporations just as it does not-for-profit corporations because the contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the owners’ religious beliefs and there are less-restrictive means of providing contraception (the government can pay for it directly).
Justice Samuel Alito writes for the majority: “Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged [Department of Health and Human Services] regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price—as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.” The court rejected the arguments that the RFRA doesn’t apply to corporations or that in the case of a closely held family business the right to exercise religious beliefs doesn’t apply.
The majority also chides the dissent for adopting HHS’s claim that “the connection between what the objecting parties must do (provide health-insurance coverage for four methods of contraception that may operate after the fertilization of an egg) and the end that they find to be morally wrong (destruction of an embryo) is simply too attenuated.” This is not for the court to decide, but is a matter of religious doctrine. (“Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question, HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step.”)
And finally, the court and the concurrence by Justice Anthony Kennedy refuse to accept that the decision will lead to a parade of horribles. Alito finds, “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them. The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction. Our decision today provides no such shield. The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.”
Conservatives in Congress and around the country are celebrating the decision, and for good reason. Todd Gaziano of the Pacific Legal Foundation remarks to us: “It’s a sound and unsurprising victory for individual liberty. It is also a rather narrow decision in what it covers and does not reach, so it was somewhat surprising how broadly the dissenters believe the reach of the decision to be. In the end, no one should worry and everyone should be happy that freedom of conscience has been protected in this important way.”
The case is confirmation that religious practice is well respected and protected in America. In that vein, the hysterical language that there is a “war against religion” or that “religion is imperiled” should be toned down. There is no sign that such a state of affairs exists, or that Congress (via the RFRA) or the courts are not guarantors of the First Amendment.