One year ago, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Hobby Lobby case. After the opinion, the public argued over who would be the big winners as a result of the case — corporations? Evangelical Christians? Men? Religious women? Looking back over the past year at the legal decisions relying on Hobby Lobby, we have a clear winner: beards.
Yes, beards. Two of the biggest cases to rely on Hobby Lobby didn’t involve corporations, or contraception or any of the other usual suspects. They involved the right to grow beards.
Seven months after the Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court followed up with another major decision that allowed a religious prison inmate to grow a half-inch beard. The state of Arkansas required all prisoners, including observant Muslims, to be clean-shaven. The state claimed it was a security regulation, but couldn’t come up with any evidence that a half-inch beard was more dangerous than a full head of hair, which the state allowed. All nine justices, even those who disagreed vehemently with Hobby Lobby, applied that precedent to allow the inmate to grow a beard.
Then in June, a federal court in Washington, D.C., issued another blockbuster opinion. This one allowed a college student, and observant Sikh, to join the ROTC without giving up his religious practice. That practice includes growing a religiously-mandated beard. It turns out the ROTC made plenty of other exceptions to its uniform policies, including one for a vampire Mickey Mouse tattoo. The court reasonably concluded that if you can make an exception for Twilight Mickey, you can make an exception for a First Amendment right, too. The court, again, relied on Hobby Lobby to make its decision.
What does any of this have to do with a craft store run by evangelicals? Everything and nothing. Hobby Lobby was decided under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law passed with overwhelming support from both parties and signed into law by President Clinton. The law strikes a balance between religious freedom, on one hand, and critical government goals on the other.
Although much of the commentary surrounding the case focused on the issue of corporations, much of the legal opinion focused on a very different question: how do you tell when a family’s religious rights have been violated? And what does the government need to prove to override those rights? In Hobby Lobby, the IRS threatened to fine the owners millions for their religious practice — a clear threat to religious freedom.
The government admitted it had other ways to ensure that women had coverage for the four contraceptives Hobby Lobby didn’t cover. When the government has many ways to achieve its goals, it should choose a path that respects religious freedom. That’s the thinking underlying the Hobby Lobby decision, as well as the religious beard cases, and several others decided in the last few months.
Who has benefited from Hobby Lobby? Individuals whose religious liberty was threatened. By contrast, legal exceptions for family-owned businesses have been few and far between. In fact, every single business to win an exception to the HHS Mandate post-Hobby Lobby had already filed its lawsuit before Hobby Lobby was decided. And there’s not a single case allowing a business to refuse to cover vaccines, or blood transfusions, or any other critical care required by law. That might surprise a lot of Hobby Lobby’s detractors, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the history of this law. It has been in effect for more than 20 years, and none of these imaginary scenarios happened before Hobby Lobby.
In the 50 years before Hobby Lobby, our courts did a good job of balancing religious freedom and other important goals. One year after Hobby Lobby, that tradition continues. So a year and a day after Hobby Lobby, let’s celebrate a law that protects religious freedom for evangelicals running family businesses, and Native Americans practicing ancient traditions, and Sikhs serving their country. Here’s to fifty more years of religious freedom.
And, of course, beards.
(Lori Windham is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the owners of Hobby Lobby. This article first appeared in USA Today.)
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