Contrary to what you may have read in less enlightened corners of the Internet, the Supreme Court did not deny access to contraception to anyone. Rather, it ruled today that if the owners of a closely held company have religious objections to providing contraceptives or abortifacients in their insurance policies, the Obama administration cannot force them to do it.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) trumps the administration’s regulations. The act says that religious objectors must be exempt from a government policy that imposes a substantial burden on their beliefs if the government has a less burdensome way of advancing a compelling interest. Five justices of the Court ruled that closely held companies can be religious objectors protected by the law, and that the government can indeed make contraception more affordable without coercing these companies.
Just as notable is what the Supreme Court’s ruling did not do. Women who work for the plaintiffs, Hobby Lobby, remain able to use their employer-provided insurance coverage to finance the most popular forms of contraception. They remain free to use their wages to finance the ones Hobby Lobby will not cover. They remain free to find other jobs, too, if they want employer-provided insurance coverage that includes the abortifacients to which Hobby Lobby objects. Congress remains free to enact a new law that requires employers to cover abortifacients and contraceptives and explicitly rules out any RFRA exemptions. It remains free, for that matter, to repeal RFRA altogether.
The ruling does not even make it clear whether the Little Sisters of the Poor will, in the end, remain free from the requirement that they authorize another party to provide contraceptive coverage. That question will be answered in a different case. The Court’s ruling today, in short, is an extremely limited one. It does not even restore the full scope of freedom employers had in these matters as recently as 2012. Nobody then, you may recall, was agitated over the fact that throughout the entire course of American history up to that point, their supposed “rights” to free contraceptive coverage from employers had been continuously violated.
It can be safely predicted that any change in birth rates and rates of contraceptive use based on this ruling will be undetectable. All that has changed is that employers are a little freer to refuse to engage in conduct they consider religiously objectionable. That this increase in freedom makes some people so very upset tells us more about them than about the Court’s ruling.