Skip to comments.The Hobby Lobby Ruling: A Shallow Victory Because It Does Not Get To The Heart Of The Problem
Posted on 07/01/2014 7:38:44 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraception coverage in employees health insurance. Opponents of Obamacares contraception mandate claimed victory, as did opponents of the law more generally, as well as many Americans with deep religious convictions.
Hobby Lobby, a family-owned business that has grown from a mom-and-pop operation in the 1970s to a chain of 514 stores that employs more than 21,000 people, is the largest company to challenge the health-care law. The companys statement of purpose says the board of directors is committed, first and foremost, to honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.
So its easy to see why the owners objected to Obamacares requirement that employers pay for forms of contraception that some consider tantamount to abortion, like the morning-after pill.
But at the heart of the contraception-mandate debate is a question that has little to do with health insurance or contraceptives and everything to do with the scope of government regulation. Conservatives rejoiced in the Courts decision, but no matter how it ruled the result was bound to be unsatisfying because it could not address the root of the problem: Pervasive, systematic regulation of private activity requires the violation of rights and liberties the Constitution was meant to protect.
Hobby Lobby offers a fine example of why this is so, and why the Courts attempt to address the fundamental problem with Obamacares contraception mandate ultimately fell short. Hobby Lobby sought shelter from the mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which stipulates that Government may substantially burden a persons exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person . . . is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.
The purpose of the RFRA was to create a statutory right where a constitutional right doesnt exist or, at least, is no longer held to exist. The Courts 1990 ruling in Employment Division v. Smith upended 30 years of precedent and returned the Court to a standard it first applied in Reynolds v. United States, in 1878. In that case, the Court found that a Mormon polygamist in the Utah Territory could not claim that his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion justified his violation of a federal anti-polygamy law. The Courts reasoning, in Reynolds and later in Smith, was that a generally applicable criminal law does not raise any free-exercise issues whatsoever. That is, the Constitutions free-exercise clause protects religious beliefs but not necessarily religiously motivated actions that run afoul of neutrally enforced federal laws, even if such laws indirectly impede the exercise of religion. Put bluntly, it means that a religious sect cant claim a free-exercise right to, say, perform a human sacrifice or engage in ritual sex with minors. Because laws against murder and rape are uniform and do not target any particular religion, they raise no free-exercise questions and cannot be challenged on those grounds.
The Smith ruling, however, provoked outrage in Washington, and Congress responded by passing the RFRA, which sought to return religious-exercise cases to a pre-Smith standard. In practice, this meant that federal, state, and local laws that interfere with religious exercise would have to serve a compelling state interest. That standard treats free exercise as a fundamental right, one of the rights of conscience embedded in the First Amendment. The burden of proof is therefore on the government, which must show that a compelling state interest is served by any law that imposes a significant burden on an individuals religious conduct.
The trouble with such a standard is that in practice it requires judges to enmesh themselves in policy debates that should be settled by elected legislatures, and to wade into religious matters about which they have no special expertise or authority. In Smith, the court was asked to decide whether Oregon could prohibit the use of peyote in a religious ceremony as part of a general prohibition on the drug, and whether the state could then deny unemployment benefits to two people fired for using it. In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia dispenses with the argument that the Court must apply a compelling state interest standard, arguing that although such a standard is appropriate in cases involving racial discrimination or government regulation of free speech, in this case it would produce a constitutional anomaly:
The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races. The First Amendments protection of religious liberty does not require this.
Scalia was in effect objecting to a process that would involve judges in a never-ending balancing act between X (does this seem like an important religious practice for these people?) and Y (does this seem like a law that serves a compelling state interest?). Such a process would not only produce inconsistent jurisprudence and bizarre outcomes, but it would also oblige judges to weigh the importance of a religious belief or practice, something they cannot reasonably be asked to do.
All of this illustrates two closely related problems that bear directly on Hobby Lobby: (1) the government can regulate our commercial activities that is, nearly any activity in almost any way it sees fit; and (2) we dont have a First Amendment right to be exempt from certain laws because of religious objections to them. Congresss solution was to push back against the ruling in Smith and create a religious right by statute, the RFRA, that the Supreme Court had deemed not to exist in the Constitution.
But none of this really gets to the heart of the matter, which is that laws like Obamacare are possible only because we have accepted the underlying premise of the New Deal eras commerce-clause jurisprudence: Government can regulate private activity in a comprehensive, systematic way and justify doing so on the slimmest constitutional pretext. What the owners of Hobby Lobby should have objected to is being forced by the government to purchase something on their employees behalf, not that the particular thing they were being forced to purchase happened to violate their religious beliefs.
Obamacare itself is entirely a product of that commerce-clause jurisprudence. The Affordable Care Act sought to regulate one might even say micromanage commercial activity by forcing employers not just to pay for contraceptive coverage for their employees but to pay for specific forms of contraception, as defined by the secretary of health and human services.
The Obama administration argued that Hobby Lobby is a for-profit, secular employer, and a secular entity by definition does not exercise religion. Hence, the reasoning goes, the owners forfeited all claims to free exercise by deciding to go into business. Since Hobby Lobby is engaged in commerce, and Congress can regulate commerce pretty much as it likes, the contraception mandate should stand. The qualms of the religious, in this view, are too attenuated to qualify as a substantial burden. The working assumption here is that commerce belongs to the government: If you go into business, you must do as we say.
To many Americans, the idea that the government can force business owners to pay for something that violates their religious convictions is repugnant. So is the idea that there is no First Amendment right to be exempted from generally applied laws that happen to impede religious practice. And yet this problem cant be solved by enlisting judges to balance the claims of religion with the claims of the public interest, as in the Hobby Lobby case. You might like the way the ruling went this time, but it could have gone the other way, and it might the next time. Theres nothing to stop a future majority of the Court from deciding that some religious beliefs are more important than others, and the government must have its way.
That is the situation we have created by allowing Congress to regulate our affairs so broadly and thoroughly, and by allowing the Court to abdicate its duty to protect property rights and economic liberty. At the end of the day, we are left with laws like the ACA, which has nothing to do with religion per se but nevertheless nearly resulted in the suppression of the exercise of religious duties.
That is, the chickens of the New Deal have long since come home to roost. Once the Court took the leap that even activity that indirectly affects interstate commerce could be regulated by Washington, as it did in Wickard v. Filburn (1942), there was no going back. The expansion of the commerce power has since eroded virtually any constitutional means of defense against the governments ability to control our commercial activities including those motivated or prohibited by religious belief.
If we really want to solve the problem at the heart of Hobby Lobby, well have to go back further than Smith, and well have to stop relying on statutory tourniquets like the RFRA. Well have to reconsider the frightening power that was unleashed nearly 80 years ago, when FDR threatened to pack the Court and the justices capitulated. By ruling in FDRs favor in NLRB v. Jones, the Court set us on the long road to pervasive government regulation, making laws like the ACA inevitable.
Conservatives can breathe a sigh of relief that Hobby Lobby came out their way and the administration was knocked down a peg, but they should not bask in the glow of victory for long. After all, more regulations and mandates, some of which will surely violate religious convictions, are already on the way.
John Daniel Davidson is a senior policy analyst for the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
I agree. We are one Supreme Court Justice short of losing our Constitutional rights altogether. Or, perhaps, we still have them in name only and just do not realize it. Our nation more and more feels like a dictatorship. Will that continue?..Only time will tell.
My wife had a saying around the kids - "Be careful what you ask for you might just get it". The Democrats got their healthcare, radicalized the EPA, put Homosexuals in the military and got pretty much of their uber leftist agenda.
Not much left to run on other than Communism.
Oh yeah, it’s “narrow” too. After all, closely held corporations only employed 52 percent of the American workforce and only accounted for 51 percent — of economic output from the private sector.
Nah, it’s “narrow”
The author seems to have forgotten that the oft-berated Chief Justice Roberts yanked the rug out from under the government in the ORIGINAL Obamacare decision by negating the use of the "commerce clause" for such regulations---the basis for almost all such regulations for 30 years.
Second, in an analysis posted above ("Prof. Mark Rienzi: A Good Day for Hobby Lobby" http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/3174573/posts) this decision was MUCH further reaching than this author suggests.
The author here is missing some major, major stuff.
One step at a time. If we are to learn anything from the success of progressives it is to be patient and take small bites over and over. Obamacare is a once in a century deal and it’s going to take at least that long to get ride of it.
The heart of the problem is the sock puppet mac daddy administration ND THE DUMB-O-CRAT party leadership.
The root of the problem is actually the following imo. As mentioned in related threads, as a consequence of parents not making sure that their children are being taught the federal government's constitutionally limited powers, the vast majority of low-information voters do not understand that the states have never delegated to the feds, expressly via the Constitution, the specific power to regulate, tax and spend for intrastate public healthcare purposes.
The left is going INSANE over this ruling. Now they’re claiming that Hobby Lobby has invested in companies that make the very abortion causing drugs that they object to. I don’t know. But I love watching them froth at the mouth, even if what they’re frothing about is factually incorrect.
For me, the problem is government butting into healthcare and telling businesses what they can and cannot provide.
It really is NONE of the government’s business.
If a company or business does not provide the kind of healthcare that you want, DON’T WORK FOR THEM.
How difficult is that?
Liberal Logic in a nutshell:
Hobby Lobby to woman: I am going to give you a job
Hobby Lobby to woman: I am going to pay you money
Hobby Lobby to woman: I am going to give you work experience
Hobby Lobby to woman: I am going to give you health insurance
Woman: Thank you so much
Hobby Lobby to woman: You are going to have to buy your
own birth control, $6 a month
Woman: WHAT? WHY ARE YOU DECLARING WAR ON ME?