The Supreme Court today rang a victory bell for religious freedom as it ruled 5–4 that “HHS’s contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion” of three closely held companies — Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood Specialties, and Mardel.
The companies objected to the Obama administration’s mandate that they must provide, at no cost to their employees, coverage for products that violate their religious beliefs.
Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, noted that the companies have “sincere Christian beliefs that life begins at conception and that it would violate their religion to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after that point.” The administration had argued that the plaintiffs were for-profit corporations and therefore couldn’t have religious beliefs.
“Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations . . . protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them,” the Court found, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
The government’s loss ignites a fresh challenge to the Obama administration’s often-illegal implementation of the health overhaul law. As the Court pointed out, the mandate was not included in the statute but was imposed by the administration through its regulations to implement the law.
Today’s decision gives Congress a stronger basis for legislation to rein in the administration’s liberal interpretation of its powers under the statute, a power the legislature will very likely exercise if the U.S. Senate changes hands in the November elections.
Challenge to religious liberty
In interpreting the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services mandated that employee health-care coverage must include contraception, sterilization procedures, and drugs that can cause abortions. The Supreme Court heard arguments on March 23 as the companies challenged the HHS mandate for violating religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.
More than 2,500 religious leaders from many denominations sent letters to President Obama objecting to the mandate, asking the administration “to protect the conscience rights of all people who have moral or religious objections to covering contraceptives and sterilization procedures.”
The Obama administration argued that companies had a means to escape through an “accommodation” it devised — a shell game to shift funding for the mandated provisions to insurance companies. But ultimately the employer would still pay because the cost would be buried in higher premiums.
The government contended that the religious views of the owners of a private business are not relevant and therefore they do not have a right to get an exemption from the law, as churches do.
Other suits challenging the mandate (see the list chronicled by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) are making their way through the courts. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and its Catholic Charities affiliates sued the federal government earlier this month seeking relief from the federal mandate. The archdiocese is the 50th nonprofit organization — including 17 individual dioceses and archdioceses — to file suit seeking injunctions on the regulations.
These suits represent nonprofit ministries challenging the same mandate and are about a year behind the Hobby Lobby cases in working their way through the courts. The Obama administration has refused to exempt them from the mandate, saying the “accommodation” gives them an exit. The Little Sisters of the Poor, leaders in the fight on behalf of nonprofit charities, say the accommodation still forces them to participate in the evil of ending human life that begins with conception.
A federal court ruled against the Little Sisters in December, but they received an injunction from the Supreme Court. Today’s decision should not give the Obama administration comfor t — the Court seems unlikely to rule against the nuns. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act “indisputably protects nonprofit corporations,” Justice Alito wrote today on behalf of the majority.
What does this portend?
Today’s decision strikes a blow to the administration, sending a strong message that it has gone far beyond its legal authority in interpreting the law. That would make it even more difficult for the administration to continue to make its extra-legal changes in the future.
The SCOTUS ruling comes as the Catholic Church is in the midst of its annual Fortnight for Freedom, culminating with the July 4 Independence Day celebrations. This is indeed a time to celebrate a victory for religious liberty, but by no means the end of the fight.
— Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute.