Yesterday the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Products. By a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga Wood Product’s challenge to the so-called “Contraceptive mandate.”
Let me summarize what happened and tomorrow on BreakPoint, John Stonestreet will look more deeply at the decision.
So the principal issue in the case was whether certain for-profit businesses have a right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA, as the act is dubbed, acknowledges that a governmental action that ostensibly has nothing to do with religion and is neutral on its face can nonetheless burden the free exercise of religion.
But, RFRA requires that any action that imposes such a burden must serve a “compelling governmental interest,” and must do so in the least restrictive way possible. And that is critical.
Now, the Obama administration argued that RFRA was never intended to apply to corporations.
Writing for the majority, Justice Alito rejected the administration’s contention about RFRA’s applicability to “closely-held corporations.” A “closely-held corporation” is a corporation where 50 percent or more of the stock is owned by five or fewer individuals, an obvious example being a family-owned-and-operated business like Hobby Lobby.
The Court held that RFRA required the government to treat religiously-based objections to federal law by closely-held corporations in the same way it treats objections by nonprofits, whom the Obama administration conceded were covered by RFRA.
As Alito wrote, “Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations . . . protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.”
Having ruled that RFRA applied to companies like Hobby Lobby, the Court found that the HHS mandate “substantially burdened” their right to the free exercise of religion by forcing them to choose between large financial penalties and violating their conviction that life begins at conception.
Finally, the Court found that the HHS mandate ran afoul of RFRA’s “least restrictive means” requirement. It argued that there were several ways the government could have made contraceptives widely available without forcing Hobby Lobby and others to violate their religious scruples. The most obvious way was for the federal government to pay for the drugs itself, as Justice Kennedy noted in his concurring opinion.
The Court insisted that Monday’s ruling would not, as the mandate’s supporters insisted, open a Pandora’s Box in which vaccinations and blood transfusions would not be covered on religious grounds. It also made it clear that its ruling is not a “shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”
There’s certainly a lot here to take in, and we here at BreakPoint will spend the better part of the next few days inwardly digesting this opinion.
The good news is that religious freedom in the United States has won a significant victory. If HHS and the dissenter’s opinion had prevailed, it might well have been “open season” on people’s consciences. I am grateful to the courageous Christian families who challenged the mandate and I’m grateful to God for the victory.
What comes next? That’s the subject of tomorrow’s broadcast with John Stonestreet. Please tune in.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: July 1, 2014