Balancing the right to religious freedom with the need for equal treatment under the law “can be difficult,” Justice Anthony Kennedy noted on June 30 with characteristic blandness. It gets more difficult still when the U.S. Supreme Court rules that “closely held corporations” can refuse on religious grounds to offer their employees contraception coverage.
The 5-to-4 decision is a messy, sprawling affair. The majority insists that its reach is narrow, while the dissent holds otherwise. What’s clear is that the ruling will needlessly complicate not only constitutional and corporate law but also—at least as significant—health care for women who work at such companies.
Hobby Lobby’s evangelical Christian owners objected to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that required it to provide its employees access to certain methods of birth control. The company objected to four types of contraception that it perceived as tantamount to abortion.
The majority ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, found that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Hobby Lobby cannot be compelled to provide contraception and that the government could find alternative means to make those services available to the company’s employees. In effect, by claiming a religious objection, Hobby Lobby can shift those costs either to the government or to a private insurer.
The court took pains to stress that Hobby Lobby is “closely held” and that its ruling applies not to publicly traded companies but to those “owned and controlled by members of a single family.” But as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the court’s logic “extends to corporations of any size, public or private.”
A pluralistic democracy that values religious freedom requires serious public accommodation of religious belief. That is why the Affordable Care Act exempted expressly religious organizations from certain provisions they found objectionable.
But not every objection can be accommodated, not every religious person can have the laws tailored to his or her beliefs. This dilemma is exacerbated when corporations are granted religious liberty. Exactly which ones deserve exactly how much is sure to be the subject of future Supreme Court jurisprudence.