by Aaron Earls
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Hobby Lobby and other similar businesses cannot be forced to provide specific contraceptive methods which violate the religious beliefs of the owners.
They found the contraceptive mandate would undercut the religious liberty of the business owners by requiring them to “engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”
Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby said the ruling is a victory not just for their company, “but for all who seek to live out their faith.”
The ruling recognized closely held companies, those controlled by a small group of shareholders, most often family-owned businesses, have the same rights and religious liberties as non-profit organizations, which are allowed by the federal government to opt out of certain requirements of the Affordable Care Act.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the contraceptive mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which, according to the ruling, prohibits the government from “taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.”
The court focused the ruling on the question of whether requiring Hobby Lobby and others to provide potentially abortion causing methods of birth control constituted the “least restrictive means” of accomplishing the goal of the law. The majority found the government failed to make the case.
“There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives,” they wrote. As the ruling pointed out, the government already does this with non-profit corporations.
Instead, the court affirmed the RFRA protects the religious liberty of individuals who own for-profit businesses.
“HHS argues that the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies, but that would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberties or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations,” the court majority concluded. “RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statue to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice.”
The ruling was clear that merely seeking to make a profit does not curb the religious liberty of a business owner. “Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law,” the court said.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, saw it as an unequivocal win for religious freedom.
“The Greens refused to render to Caesar that which did not belong to him and the Supreme Court agreed,” he said. “As a Baptist, I am encouraged that our ancestors’ struggle for the First Amendment has been vindicated.”
Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby, told RNS the ruling demonstrates that citizens maintain their religious freedom when they open a family business.
“The court understands that religion isn’t limited to what you do in a synagogue on Saturday or a church on Sunday.”
The ruling, however, was not as expansive as it could have been. It specifically limits the ruling to closely held companies, while leaving for another case what it would do with a large, publicly traded corporation that might make a similar argument from RFRA.
The court also specifically stated that this ruling does not allow a religious business owner to refuse to provide coverage for any medical treatment they deem objectionable—including blood transfusions and vaccines. Nor does the court view this as granting a shield to any employers who wish to practice illegal hiring practices.
In seeking to move forward after the decision, Moore wrote that Christians must work to continually affirm religious liberty. “We must teach our children what it means to be free people, and what it means to follow Christ whatever the cost,” he said.
Trevin Wax, prominent blogger and managing editor of “The Gospel Project,” agrees, pointing out on his blog that Christians must be living as salt and light with their friends and neighbors, who may not agree with the Supreme Court’s decision. “As evangelicals, we can’t rely on the courts; we have to be in conversations,” he maintained.
A previous study from Lifeway Research supports the need for reaching individuals. It found that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of American adults believe businesses should be required to provide their employees with free contraception and birth control, even if it runs counter to the owners’ religious principles.
Executive Director of Lifeway Research Ed Stetzer challenged Christians to be on mission within culture as agents of gospel transformation. “The answer to the decline of religious freedom and the change in the moral climate is not found in waging incessant cultural wars, filled with rage at our changing culture,” he wrote.
“Even in our passion to defend freedoms increasingly at risk, let’s remind ourselves this generation is desperately in need of the love of Christ, lived and shared.”
by Aaron Earls