Looking back at the Hobby Lobby decision

Supreme Court sought to protect freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion

On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear cases from five states seeking to keep their same-sex marriage bans in place, effectively handing a tacit victory to the gay rights movement. In keeping silent, the Court prevented the religious preferences of some from limiting the life choices of others.

Such gracious restraint from interference, however, was not exercised this summer in a different high-profile case. In late June, the Supreme Court addressed whether certain companies should be exempt from a federal requirement to cover contraceptives in their health plans. The Court ruled in favor of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, along with other “closely held” corporations, declaring that they may be exempt from the contraceptive mandate if they have religious objections. Consequently, when a woman steps into a pharmacy, she may be limited in what products her insurance covers due to her employer’s faith. Even if this image seems esoteric, it serves as a reminder of the decision’s potential ramifications.

A notable controversy associated with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is that a corporation is now treated as though it is a person with religious rights. Yet a corporation is not a person — and if it were, who would it be? The owners, managers, and employees all take on the roles of gears in a whole system, and each has his or her own constitutional rights that should be equally protected. Regardless of their roles, the legal system is broadly expected to prevent rather than support one person’s beliefs from directing the private life of another, and due to the decision, the religious preferences of the firm can now supersede those of its employees.

Furthermore, long-standing precedent has allowed corporations to enjoy a legal privilege that individuals cannot: limited liability. This dictates that the debt of an incorporated entity cannot fall on its private shareholders, thereby separating corporations and the private lives of their owners. Yet the Hobby Lobby decision counters that separation by allowing an owner to impose his or her personal religious beliefs on the entire company. The ability for corporations to simultaneously enjoy limited liability and individual religious liberties is inconsistent. On one hand, an owner can be privately excused for the company’s wrongdoings and call that an institutional freedom, all the while exerting private religious beliefs on employees and calling it a personal freedom.

Yet “freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth,” Austrian doctor and thinker Viktor Frankl has said. The other half, he says, is responsibility. Before the Hobby Lobby decision, owners could enjoy their institutional freedoms while upholding their institutional obligations, such as abiding by laws that require they provide a certain level of health insurance. The new possibility of exemption seems to disrupt the balance between rights and responsibilities.

In addition to this disputable sense of balance, the decision to acknowledge a corporation’s freedom of religion could suddenly open a Pandora’s box of all sorts of claims by business owners. Here, things could get fuzzy. Some Jehova’s Witnesses, for example, see the refusal of blood transfusions as a nonnegotiable religious stance. Could an owner cite this as a reason to avoid paying for employees’ insurance plans covering such a procedure?

Justice Kennedy directly addressed this issue, writing, “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious belief.” One might then wonder about non-medical religious convictions of business owners. For instance, there may be some who object to hiring people in same-sex relationships. If such claims would go unaddressed and the Hobby Lobby decision is indeed limited to the contraceptive mandate, as the Kennedy statement implies, then it inadvertently sides with a particular religious belief. This may actually be harmful to societal freedom of religion, and it happens to only leave women’s coverage vulnerable to exemptions.

In a 5-4 ruling in which all three female justices dissented, the Court decided to rule in favor of protecting freedom of religion. While the intentions are admirable, the decision does not address the diverse religions of different business owners impartially. Furthermore, within a particular company of owners subscribing to a particular faith, it seems inevitable that other complications would arise since each employee has a unique set of beliefs.

The Hobby Lobby ruling then allows one group’s ideology to encroach on another’s right to choose. As a result, women may now find that their employer’s faith has come between themselves, their doctors, and their health choices. This might only be the beginning of a pattern. Novelist Charlotte Brontë wrote, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This week, when the Supreme Court sustained appeals court rulings that permitted same-sex marriages, it admirably protected the wills and freedoms of individuals. While this may have also been the Court’s intention in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, it had not done so equitably.

Claire Lazar is a member of the Class of 2017.

Bob Miller over 8 years ago

Yeah, who are we as a society to make moral distinctions at all? The thing is, not all behaviors are consistent with healthy family life and protection of human life. Once society as a whole loses its bedrock values, what we have is America today, living under many illusions, pretending that all paths (or, more accurately, all paths preferred or advocated or even enforced by the elite) are equally valid, no matter the cost.

Brian Rabbit over 8 years ago

Almost every premise of this article is flawed.

The court answered the questions about corporations and religious rights in the ruling; please read it.

Nowhere is it written "the legal system is broadly expected to prevent rather than support one persons beliefs from directing the private life of another" when such "support" comes from explicit government relinquishment of authority (such as with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, aka "RFRA"), especially when there is no such "directing" going on; Employers are not telling Employees, "You can't use these products," but are saying, "If You are going to use them, We will not help You do so by paying for them thru the Self insured medical plan."

Limited liability is not a "legal precedent" but a statutory protection which can be amended, extended or revoked at any time by a legislature.

RFRA prevents the "disruption" You fear by placing conditions on when its protections apply.

Re same-sex relationship: employment discrimination laws were addressed in the ruling; please read it.

The Hobby Lobby decision does not "side[] with a particular religious belief" because RFRA requires each case be examined on a case-by-case basis.

The court did NOT decide "to rule in favor of protecting freedom of religion" but recognized RFRA requires such protection.

Whether Employees have different beliefs from Each Other and/or the Employers is irrelevant because Employee beliefs do not factor into RFRA analysis, except tangentially thru the compelling interest test, a point stated in the court's ruling; please read it.

The Hobby Lobby ruling does not "allow[] one groups ideology to encroach on anothers right to choose" any more than a Vegan refusing to pass the hamburgers to a Carnivore at a 4th of July picnic "encroaches" on that Carnivore's "right to choose".

In light of these more accurate premises, the article's conclusion is clearly flawed.

Anonymous over 8 years ago

The article's argument explores the controversial ruling regarding Hobby Lobby, and would benefit even more so by embellishing on the wide range of application that contraceptives have. Contraceptives are prescribed for various health problems and not used solely for preventing unwanted pregnancies; individuals tend to misconstrue the various functions that this health product has. The author draws on part of this and warns about the precedent that this ruling sets when individuals with religious inclinations value their personal beliefs over the rights of others.

Anonymous over 8 years ago

I agree that it makes no sense that the Hobby Lobby decision is purposefully limited to contraception, but it is somehow tied to general religious rights. Claims about same-sex relationships and other medical topics like vaccines are not applicable based on the decision. does that imply they are less valid religious beliefs? And, but the way, could science be considered a religious belief, if so many of the health insurance mandates could be argued with.