Cheers of victory from crowds bearing “religious freedom” signs rang from street outside the Supreme Court Monday as Hobby Lobby emerged narrowly victorious in a test of whether corporations have religious freedom rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The five-four decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, finds “closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraception coverage.”
The evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite family owners of Conestoga Wood Specialities opposed covering four of the 20 forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration and required under Obamacare. They objected to IUDs and emergency contraception such as Plan B.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, celebrated the ruling as “a great day for religious freedom for family businesses.” The church was not part of this suit but it affects private businesses owned by Catholics and may have an impact on upcoming suits by faith-based nonprofits.
Groans emerged from dismayed but defiant opposition groups — supporters of the Affordable Care Act mandate.
“This decision is a double-edged disaster,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a press release.
Lynn called it a “dangerous precedent,” noting that women’s access to birth control could shift with the whims of each new presidential administration.
Politicians such as Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards took to Twitter with their concern that women’s access to birth control had become a political target.
Supporters of the mandate were not appeased by the decision’s numerous qualifications.
The ruling does not extend beyond the contraception issue and doesn’t affect publicly held corporations.
Neither did it necessarily benefit the nonprofit groups that object to a work-around created by the Obama administration, one which didn’t require such nonprofit groups to directly cover contraception.
Kurtz noted this in the USCCB statement, saying, “The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise.”
University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock said the court’s suggestion “that the government’s accommodation for nonprofits is a less restrictive means for the for-profits does not bode well for the non-profits.”
“The court points to the live-and-let-live solution, which is what the government has offered to the religious non-profits: women get free contraception, and the religious objectors don’t have to pay for it, contract for it, or arrange for it.
“The court specifically does not decide the claims of religious nonprofits who don’t even want to send the form claiming the objection. But I would not be optimistic about that claim,” said Laycock.
Ira Lupu, George Washington University law school professor emeritus, called the impact of the ruling “completely uncertain.”
Lupu said, “Today’s decision does not tell us whether religious non-profits are or are not ‘substantially burdened’ by having to certify their objection and thereby set in motion a process of insurance coverage of their employees’ need for contraceptives. And if “the government can pay” is a relevant less restrictive means, that can apply to all objectors, for-profit or non-profit.”
Looking ahead, Lupu said, “I can see no way that the lower courts can treat the broader objections differently from those of Hobby Lobby; all of the companies objecting to contraceptive coverage requirements will now prevail.”
The Rev. Harry Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, issued a statement disputing the idea that a corporation can have religious rights:
“No matter how closely-held, a corporation is still not a spiritual being — it does not pray or sit in the pews or bring casseroles to the congregational picnic like my family and I do. It is an insult to the uniquely sacred community cultivated by congregations to consider for-profit corporations legally synonymous with a religious institution.”
The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, Interfaith Alliance president, decried the ruling as a “grave error.” He is bothered by all the unanswered questions.
“Though it is narrowly about contraception, the principle involved easily could give leeway for judges” in cases where company owners object to providing services for gay customers, Gaddy said. “Those scare me.”
But David Masci, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said that, looking at the majority ruling, “businesses should not see today’s ruling as a license to use religious liberty claims to discriminate racial minorities, women and others in hiring or provision of services or goods. It’s clear that they wanted to head these kinds of claims off at the pass.”
However, Justice Ruth Ginsberg, writing in the minority decision, called the ruling one of “startling breadth” so the fallout is really not known — yet.
One tweeter looked at the recent run of cases in which the Supreme Court opened the door to sectarian prayers at public meetings and also invalidated a Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot buffer zone in front of abortion clinics.
— Maggie Ardiente (@MaggieArdiente) June 30, 2014
And one popular Christian blogger seemed to say folks need to take a breath here:
Good gravy. The way some people are responding to this #HobbyLobby thing, you’d think the Second Coming was upon us.
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) June 30, 2014
Religion News Service will be updating reaction from all viewpoints here today so refresh often.
(Click on any photo to begin the slideshow.)