The Supreme Court delivered a historic opinion yesterday, and it very well could affect you. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court held that the government cannot require closely held corporations with religious owners to provide contraception coverage. This holding is predicated on two acts of Congress, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA).
The RFRA was passed in 1993 to extend protections under the notion religious liberty. If a law substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion, the person may be exempt from the rule unless the government demonstrates two things. It must first show that the rule supported a “compelling government interest.” And, it must also be the least restrictive means of “furthering the compelling government interest.”
When Congress passed the ACA, it included language that requires businesses like Hobby Lobby to provide preventative care and screenings to its female employees without the employee contributing to the cost. Congress deferred to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is under the Department of Health and Human Services, to provide the definitions for preventative care and screenings. HRSA incorporated particular contraceptives into the definition, to which the family who owns Hobby Lobby objects. Even though Hobby Lobby is a corporation, the family retains exclusive control over the company, which allows for the “closely held” label. Thus, the Court held that in situations like this, corporations must be exempt from providing contraceptives that its owners object to under a religious basis. The Court found that the government had not satisfied its burden of proof when defending the two-step test mentioned earlier.
Unfortunately, this is difficult to answer at this point. It will be up to the lower courts to determine the meaning of this ruling and to apply it as precedent. At the very least, however, it means that closely held corporations can exercise religious freedom. The next logical step is that a corporation will use the religious freedom excuse to become exempt from other national laws.
With President Obama’s announcement that he will extend workplace benefits to LGBT individuals in the public sector based on gender identity, many commentators expect that Congress will do something similar. Unfortunately, Congressional action might be futile when reconciled with cases like Hobby Lobby. If a closely held corporation’s president or CEO believes that hiring LGBT employees is incongruent with his or her religious teachings, he or she might be able to use the RFRA to become exempt from following the law. The ramifications of this would set American progress back several years.
Fortunately, the Court issued a narrow holding that applied only to closely held corporations. What is unfortunate and indeed unknown is how much the opinion will be broadened by future cases with equally harmful results.