It’s been a big day at the Supreme Court of the United States, with the Court handing down a much-anticipated ruling. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Court took on a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Predictably, forces on both sides of the issue are making a lot out of the ruling.
First, a little background (in case, you know, you’ve been in orbit or something). The ACA requires employers to include women’s contraception in their insurance plans. Religious entities that have employees (like the Catholic Church) are exempted from this requirement. Religiously affiliated entities (like the University of Notre Dame) can “opt out” of the requirement, but the insurance companies must provide the coverage at no cost to the employee—or the institution.
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is a large, national chain of hobby stores. The corporation is owned by a handful of family members who contend that the contraception mandate burdens their religious freedoms. The government argued that the corporation is an entity totally distinct from its shareholders. Hobby Lobby argued that the corporation is a person for purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and therefore is entitled to protection. The Court came down on the side of Hobby Lobby in a 5-4 decision.
Here are my thoughts. First, too many people are getting their information about the ruling from Twitter. The majority opinion, concurring opinion, and dissenting opinions take 95 pages. You can’t possibly get all of the detailed discussion in 140 character tweets. Second, people are jumping to conclusions. The Court did not say that corporations have more rights than people. The Court did say that some corporations could be exempt from the contraception mandate because they are closely held (meaning the corporation has just a few shareholders).
The Court did not say that the “rights” of the corporation trump the rights of female employees. The Court did say that the government did not show that the contraception mandate was the least restrictive means to accomplish its goal (the Court noted that the government itself could pay for the contraception, which would in turn not burden the religious beliefs of the shareholders).
The Court did not say that corporations are free to discriminate or be exempt from other types of health care requirements. The Court specifically held that this ruling was limited to the four specific contraceptive methods that Hobby Lobby’s shareholders found objectionable. Other contraceptive methods (such as the Pill) are not affected by today’s ruling. (Although, one can see that battle coming soon.)
Now, there’s plenty to critique in the opinion. The intellectual validity of the Court’s use of the Dictionary Act to define “person” as used in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is dubious at best. As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the Dictionary Act comes into play when a term’s meaning is not clear from its context in a statute. The RFRA refers to “persons who exercise religious beliefs.” That qualifier would seem to indicate that the drafters did not mean to include corporations. Historically, the courts have distinguished between for-profit, non-profit, and religiously-based non-profit corporations. Today’s decision blurs those lines.
In my view, the Court’s majority opinion has significant flaws in reasoning. We can spend lots of time questioning the motives behind the five-member majority, but that doesn’t accomplish anything. The Court’s ruling today may lead to unintended consequences in the future, but that won’t be the first time. What we can best do for our nation is to have a rational discussion about the ruling, its strengths and weaknesses, and not engage in partisan screeching.