Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hobby Lobby case

Free Contraception v. the Constitution

Liberal anger over last week’s Hobby Lobby decision increased on Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a provisional exemption to a Christian college that objected to being compelled to pay or even be complicit in the distribution of abortion-inducing drugs. This will cause the left to redouble efforts to recycle its “war on women” meme. But like many of the recent criticisms of the court, this argument seemed to have everything to do with politics and nothing with the Constitution.

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Liberal anger over last week’s Hobby Lobby decision increased on Thursday when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a provisional exemption to a Christian college that objected to being compelled to pay or even be complicit in the distribution of abortion-inducing drugs. This will cause the left to redouble efforts to recycle its “war on women” meme. But like many of the recent criticisms of the court, this argument seemed to have everything to do with politics and nothing with the Constitution.

The decision that granted Wheaton College the right to avoid even the appearance of complicity in the use of such drugs provoked a particularly angry response from the court’s three female members. Speaking on behalf of the liberal trio, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that allowing Wheaton to opt out of the Health and Human Services Department’s ObamaCare contraception mandate gave the lie to the conservative majority’s assurances in Hobby Lobby. In that decision, Justice Samuel Alito ruled that all they were doing was ensuring that requirements to provide free contraception coverage in insurance plans were enforced in the manner that would not place a “substantial burden” on the religious freedom of those affected.

Sotomayor believed the plan proposed by the government that would require religious non-profits like Wheaton to submit forms to their insurance carriers instructing them to provide the drugs, albeit without payment from the institutions in question, was an adequate fix. The majority rightly disagreed. While a provision to allow the government to step in and pay for the drugs was legal, demanding those with religious objections to the use of such drugs to take part in their distribution in this manner clearly violated the First Amendment protections of religious freedom.

But the debate about this decision, and the subsequent distortions of it on the Sunday talk shows and on MSNBC, demonstrate something far more insidious than merely the latest iteration of what is generally put down as a “culture war” issue. After all, no one, not even Wheaton College or the Green family that owns the Hobby Lobby company are advocating for the ban of contraception or believe that what they are doing in these suits is part of a campaign to end or even limit legal abortions in this country. Rather, what we are witnessing is a liberal meltdown in which they have come to believe the First Amendment is a technicality that should brushed aside when it comes into conflict with the “right” to free contraception.

The notion of such a right dates only to the aftermath of the passage of ObamaCare in 2010 when HHS interpreted the law as an authorization for a mandate that would require all employers, regardless of whether they were religious institutions or not, or the beliefs of their owners, to pay for a wide range of contraception, including those drugs that are believed to cause abortions.

Most Americans are not opposed to any form of contraception and may even approve of drugs or devices that some believers see as abortion inducers. But one doesn’t have to share the convictions of the Greens or the board at Wheaton to understand that a bureaucratic mandate that runs roughshod over their faith trashes the First Amendment protection of free exercise of religion that all Americans rely upon.

Yet for the political left, the concept of religious liberty has been re-interpreted as to only mean the right to be allowed to pray in private but not to live one’s faith in the public square. When faith conflicts with policy initiatives such as the free contraception mandate, they assume that religion must always lose. However, the court majority has rightly reminded us that the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment cannot be trashed simply because a lot of Americans want not only access to contraception but also think their employers ought to be compelled to pay for it.

But to liberals, a decision that reaffirms the primacy of religious freedom is just the latest iteration of a Republican “war on women.” As a political slogan, that meme has been political gold for Democrats who believe its use guarantees their stranglehold on the votes of unmarried women. But as infuriating and wrongheaded the war on women arguments may be, what is really troubling about them is that they reflect a utilitarian approach to the Constitution that regards any of its protections as expendable if they are obstacles to a liberal policy goal.

It should be pointed out again that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that the court has rightly referenced in its decisions granting relief to opponents of the HHS mandate once had bipartisan support. But Democrats appear to be willing to sacrifice it now that its protections for faith are making implementation of this notion of free contraception for all difficult.

This is significant not because that goal is unreasonable or immoral. No-cost contraception is no more absurd than many other federal entitlements, though even its most fervent advocates must understand that the cause of free condoms and birth control pills has none of the moral authority that efforts to guarantee food, shelter, or even basic health care for the poor can command. But even if we were to agree that this particular prooposal is a laudable program, the idea that providing these items free of charge at the expense of all employers—including those with deep religious convictions—is so important that it must take precedence over religious freedom is insupportable. Indeed, it can only be asserted in the context of a belief that no constitutional protections of any kind can stand against it.

Do single women truly believe that their desire for free contraception is a principle of such importance that it trumps the First Amendment? That is a doubtful proposition. But it makes sense in a liberal political environment in which the Constitution no longer commands the respect of one side of the political aisle.

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Religious Liberty Trumps ObamaCare

In ruling against the ObamaCare contraception mandate today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a fundamental principle of American law. While the administration hoped to establish a precedent that would have ensured that its policy goals about free contraception and abortion overrode the rights of individuals, the court said no. Religious freedom trumps ObamaCare and the government’s war on faith.

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In ruling against the ObamaCare contraception mandate today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a fundamental principle of American law. While the administration hoped to establish a precedent that would have ensured that its policy goals about free contraception and abortion overrode the rights of individuals, the court said no. Religious freedom trumps ObamaCare and the government’s war on faith.

At stake in this case was the question of whether the government could compel companies to pay for services that its owners asserted violated their right to religious freedom. In this case, it was the abortion-inducing drugs that the Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of stores refused to include in the insurance coverage they offered employees. The government’s position was that such companies do not have First Amendment rights that protect free exercise of religion. But what the court has done today is to make clear that no policy goal justifies abrogating religious freedom.

Doing so does not overturn the Affordable Care Act or make it unworkable. Indeed, the decision will probably not even affect the ability of individuals who work for such companies to get free coverage for such drugs since it is likely that the government will now step in and pay for them. Nor does it claim that all companies can assert such rights since the decision restricts itself to the fate of closely held corporations rather than public companies run by people with diverse views and interests. But it does deal a devastating blow to the concept that government mandates can run roughshod over religious freedom when applied to those who do business.

Had the government prevailed, the result would have been a new cribbed version of religious freedom that would have allowed it only in houses of worship or at home but not in the public square. Under those circumstances, those choosing to operate businesses or to avail themselves of the protections afforded those who incorporate enterprises would be forced to make a choice between their faith and their economic interests. As Justice Alito rightly notes in the majority decision, when Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it “designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice.”

Liberals have mocked the idea that corporations are individuals with rights, whether of political speech (which the court protected in the Citizens United decision) or religious liberty as in this case. But the point here is that by extending free exercise rights to corporations, the Constitution is guaranteeing them to the individuals who own them. Citizens are not stripped of their religious freedom when they incorporate.

Similarly, opponents of Hobby Lobby and the other companies associated with this case have asserted that granting religious liberty to such entities creates a slippery slope that will enable all sorts of discrimination in the name of faith. But, as the court held, the government has a compelling interest in protecting citizens against such actions. It could make no such case for forcing business owners to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.

The mandate’s supporters have sought to frame this issue as one of women’s rights or health but that is utterly specious. No one is preventing anyone from obtaining contraception or abortions in this case. But it does not follow that the government has the right to compel companies to pay for such services when they contradict the religious beliefs of its owners. Those who wish not to be forced to pay for such services are not imposing their faith on others. It is, instead, the government that is trying to force people of faith to abandon their values if they want to operate publicly.

This precedent will not apply to companies with diverse ownership that do not all agree about religion. Yet by carving out a place in the public sphere for companies like Hobby Lobby, whose proprietors live out their faiths even when they do business, the court has reminded a government whose appetite for power seems unquenchable that the First Amendment protections of religious expression apply in the business world as much as they do in churches, synagogues, or mosques.

One needn’t agree with the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, or with the Catholic Church that successfully campaigned for exempting religious institutions and non-profits from the mandate, about either contraception or abortion, to understand that if the government can take their rights away, no one’s freedom is safe.

At the heart of this case was more than a government regulation. Universal healthcare is, in principle, a noble goal. But when it is interpreted to mean that the government guarantees those who wish to avail themselves of contraception or abortion services may compel those whose faith opposes these things to give it to them for free, it becomes a form of tyranny. Even if we were to concede that the Affordable Care Act is good for the country, which I do not, its ambition to expand insurance coverage is not sufficient to justify mandates that treat religious liberty as an afterthought at best.

As with so many other difficult cases being decided by the court these days, Hobby Lobby hinged on the attempt to balance the desire of liberals to expand the power of government with constitutional principles. Religious liberty may not be set aside merely because it can, under some circumstances, interfere with the liberal project. The Constitution can be a very inconvenient document for those who want to ignore its restrictions on the ability of government to do what it likes. But at least in this instance, the court has reminded us that religious freedom cannot be sacrificed on the altar of President Obama’s signature health-care law.

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Hobby Lobby Critics Demonize Belief

The legal and political world is awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case with bated breath. The court’s ruling will determine whether the Obama administration’s efforts to restrict religious freedom or the plaintiffs’ belief that faith may be practiced in the public square will prevail. The arguments over the merits of the case in which the government’s attempt to impose a contraception and abortion drug mandate on private businesses as well as religious institutions have been endlessly rehearsed as a sidebar to the general debate about ObamaCare. But, as I noted earlier this year, rather than confining the debate to the question of constitutional rights, critics of the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius have done their best to portray the business owners who seek to strike down the government mandate as not merely wrong but a threat to liberty.

In order to do this, the administration and its cheering section in the mainstream media have sought to transform the debate from one that centers on government using its power to force people of faith to choose between their religion and their business to the dubious notion that dissenters from the mandate wish to impose their beliefs on others. This is a false premise since even if the owners of Hobby Lobby win, its employees won’t be prevented from obtaining birth control or abortion-inducing drugs. The only thing that will change is whether their Christian employers will be forced to pay for them.

But efforts to demonize Hobby Lobby are not confined to these specious arguments. As today’s feature in Politico on the Green family shows, the goal of the liberal critics of Hobby Lobby isn’t so much to draw the line on religious freedom as it is to depict their foes as crazy religious extremists who want to transform America into a “Christian nation.” That this is an unfair distortion of their intent as well as the point of the court case goes without saying. But the fact that mainstream publications feel free to mock the Greens in this manner tells us exactly why the plaintiffs’ fears about restrictions on religious freedom may be justified.

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The legal and political world is awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case with bated breath. The court’s ruling will determine whether the Obama administration’s efforts to restrict religious freedom or the plaintiffs’ belief that faith may be practiced in the public square will prevail. The arguments over the merits of the case in which the government’s attempt to impose a contraception and abortion drug mandate on private businesses as well as religious institutions have been endlessly rehearsed as a sidebar to the general debate about ObamaCare. But, as I noted earlier this year, rather than confining the debate to the question of constitutional rights, critics of the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius have done their best to portray the business owners who seek to strike down the government mandate as not merely wrong but a threat to liberty.

In order to do this, the administration and its cheering section in the mainstream media have sought to transform the debate from one that centers on government using its power to force people of faith to choose between their religion and their business to the dubious notion that dissenters from the mandate wish to impose their beliefs on others. This is a false premise since even if the owners of Hobby Lobby win, its employees won’t be prevented from obtaining birth control or abortion-inducing drugs. The only thing that will change is whether their Christian employers will be forced to pay for them.

But efforts to demonize Hobby Lobby are not confined to these specious arguments. As today’s feature in Politico on the Green family shows, the goal of the liberal critics of Hobby Lobby isn’t so much to draw the line on religious freedom as it is to depict their foes as crazy religious extremists who want to transform America into a “Christian nation.” That this is an unfair distortion of their intent as well as the point of the court case goes without saying. But the fact that mainstream publications feel free to mock the Greens in this manner tells us exactly why the plaintiffs’ fears about restrictions on religious freedom may be justified.

In Politico’s telling, the Greens are religious fanatics who not only are willing to conduct their businesses along religious lines, including closing their chain of hobby stores on Sunday, but also want to promote their beliefs to others. The Greens may wind up investing hundreds of millions of their vast fortune to the building of a Bible museum in Washington D.C. The also want to promote Bible study and a funding a textbook and curriculum about religious studies they’d like to see be adopted by school systems. According to Politico, these efforts are stirring concern in the ranks of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and other liberal organs.

Were one of the Greens running for national political office, all this would, of course, be fair game. But it bears repeating that these people are private individuals who are merely using their personal resources to do exactly what the Founders sought to guarantee for all Americans: express their opinions and practice their faith without government interference.

As with their views about contraception or abortion, you don’t have to agree with the Greens to understand that they have every right to practice their faith and to promote their ideas. These are, as Politico admits, not your typical tycoons. They are more interested in faith than profit and are willing to stake their fortune on a fight to preserve their ability to conduct business without being forced to violate their religious beliefs. That may be alien to the mindset of many Americans in an era where much of our popular culture rests on the premise that we live in a world where there is no God and that those whose lives are built on faith are somewhat screwy. But the notion that such people, even very rich ones who build museums and promote Bible study, are a threat to non-believers is utterly fanciful.

Contrary to their government opponents in their lawsuit, the Hobby Lobby owners are not trying to force the actions of others to conform to their beliefs. What they want is to be left alone to practice their faith while also trying to persuade others to share it. Bible study may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the notion that it is a threat to democracy would have been hard to sell to this nation’s Founders. The attacks on the Greens illustrate the intolerance of openly expressed faith that is at the core of the mandate the administration is seeking to enforce. The Greens are no threat to the liberty of non-believers who need not visit their bible museum nor read the religious materials they publish. But a government, egged on by a liberal media establishment, that can’t tolerate Hobby Lobby’s practices is one that has little interest in defending anyone’s religious freedom. In such an atmosphere, it’s little wonder that Hobby Lobby’s advocates see the outcome of this case as a crucial moment in the fight to defend constitutional liberty.

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The Shrinking Mandate and Freedom

We won’t know the outcome of today’s hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court of the Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius case, which tests the right of the government to impose a mandate forcing all businesses to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs, until later this spring. As I wrote yesterday, the case is a crucial test for the future of religious freedom in this country since if the government prevails it will mean that persons of faith will be obligated to abandon their principles if they wish to participate in commerce. But though it is widely understood that this case is the byproduct of the ongoing fight about ObamaCare, what is not often pointed out is that President Obama’s favorite tactic in trying to soften the blow of his signature health-care law prior to the 2014 midterms highlights the hypocrisy of his administration’s arguments before the courts.

Over the course of the last year, the administration has granted numerous exemptions and delays to businesses and various types of individuals from having to comply with the law. As Politico reports today, the extent of how far the individual mandate has shrunk is astounding. The point of that exercise is to reduce the pain felt by both businesses and consumers in order to tamp down the general outrage about the law that has been growing since its passage. Democrats say these moves have just been a matter of common sense for a scheme that is in its infancy. But it is telling that the one exemption that the administration has never considered and is, in fact, willing to go to legal war over, is the mandate that is being resisted by Hobby Lobby and other companies with related lawsuits that are being decided by the high court. This is not merely a matter of political bias that can serve as a talking point about the case. As questions from the justices to Solicitor General Donald Verrelli indicated today, it goes directly to the argument put forward by the government that its purpose in compelling Hobby Lobby’s owners to discard their religious scruples constitutes the “least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest” as defined by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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We won’t know the outcome of today’s hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court of the Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius case, which tests the right of the government to impose a mandate forcing all businesses to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs, until later this spring. As I wrote yesterday, the case is a crucial test for the future of religious freedom in this country since if the government prevails it will mean that persons of faith will be obligated to abandon their principles if they wish to participate in commerce. But though it is widely understood that this case is the byproduct of the ongoing fight about ObamaCare, what is not often pointed out is that President Obama’s favorite tactic in trying to soften the blow of his signature health-care law prior to the 2014 midterms highlights the hypocrisy of his administration’s arguments before the courts.

Over the course of the last year, the administration has granted numerous exemptions and delays to businesses and various types of individuals from having to comply with the law. As Politico reports today, the extent of how far the individual mandate has shrunk is astounding. The point of that exercise is to reduce the pain felt by both businesses and consumers in order to tamp down the general outrage about the law that has been growing since its passage. Democrats say these moves have just been a matter of common sense for a scheme that is in its infancy. But it is telling that the one exemption that the administration has never considered and is, in fact, willing to go to legal war over, is the mandate that is being resisted by Hobby Lobby and other companies with related lawsuits that are being decided by the high court. This is not merely a matter of political bias that can serve as a talking point about the case. As questions from the justices to Solicitor General Donald Verrelli indicated today, it goes directly to the argument put forward by the government that its purpose in compelling Hobby Lobby’s owners to discard their religious scruples constitutes the “least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest” as defined by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That the government has never sought to relieve companies of the burden imposed by the Health and Human Services Department mandate is important because of the vast array of other exemptions that it has shown itself willing to countenance. President Obama has played fast and loose with his constitutional obligations to enforce the laws of the land with unilateral decisions that various aspects of the bill he signed into law could be postponed or ignored. This selective enforcement undermines arguments about a “compelling government interest.” Since Hobby Lobby is facing fines of $1.3 million per day for its refusal to pay for services that offend the consciences and the religious beliefs of its owners or over $26 million per year if it dropped coverage altogether, there is no question that it is being placed under a substantial burden.

The government’s arguments are already vague about its justification for this decision. The red herrings about women’s rights and health-care costs that are put forward by administration cheerleaders obscure the fact that no one’s rights or access to contraception is being denied by Hobby Lobby. Nor is there any substance to arguments that owners of for-profit businesses lose their First Amendment rights when they incorporate or engage in commerce. As Gabriel Malor writes in a compelling summary of the myths that Hobby Lobby opponents have propagated at TheFederalist.com:

It is not a radical departure from the norm for businesses to pick and choose what health coverage they provide. In fact, that was the norm for decades. What was new and harmful and possibly part of a slippery slope to lawlesssness was the decision of Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius to impose her will on businesses, for the first time demanding that they provide morally objectionable coverage or face crippling penalties.

As Malor also writes, the notion that there is a compelling government interest in forcing Hobby Lobby to bend to the will of the administration is undermined by the fact that:

Sebelius has already exempted 190 million people from the contraception mandate, either because they work for non-profit corporations or because their plans were “grandfathered” when ObamaCare became effective.

Under these circumstances with widespread exemptions the arguments in favor of the government aren’t merely exposed as constitutionally weak but a demonstration of the administration’s hostility to religious believers who disagree with the mandate. A nation that values religious freedom less than it does Barack Obama’s political calculations is one that is abandoning the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

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