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.