1. A federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was written to protect individuals’ religious freedoms — and on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that, under RFRA, corporations count as people: their religious freedoms also get protection.
2. The requirement to cover contraception violated RFRA because it mandated that businesses “engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”
3. If the federal government wanted to increase access to birth control — which they argued was the point of this requirement — the Court thinks it could do it in ways that didn’t violate religious freedom, like taking on the task of distributing contraceptives itself.
Technically speaking, this decision applies only to “closely-held” corporations (which are about 90% of all American corporations – effectively, any corp that isn’t publicly traded on the stock market), and only to cases involving religious objections to contraception.
However, this decision could vastly expand the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by providing a precedent for future lawsuits by corporations who (for example) feel religiously burdened by providing health care coverage to the spouses and children of gay employees rush to sue, or corporations run by Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t want to offer blood transfusions in health coverage. Indeed, Ted Cruz today gleefully predicted that there will be “hundreds” of RFRA cases seeking to build on this decision.
Notably, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, claimed that this decision won’t impact female employees of Hobby Lobby because the Federal Government could extend the same “accommodation” to Hobby Lobby that it has offered to religious non-profits like Little Sisters of the Poor. However, that accommodation – which asks corporations to sign a statement letting the government know that they won’t be providing contraceptive coverage – has been sued by religious conservatives, who say signing such a form contradicts their religious beliefs – and Alito’s decision vastly increases their chance of winning. At least one Judge, in light of the Hobby Lobby decision, sees the wind blowing that way:
Acting swiftly in the wake of the Court’s ruling on Monday, and relying directly upon that decision, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday blocked all enforcement (pdf link) of the mandate against an Alabama Catholic TV network, a non-profit entity. The concurring opinion of the Court of Appeals, written by Circuit Judge William H. Pryor Jr., argued that the accommodation… is itself likely to be struck down.
The Friendly Atheist has a round-up of reactions from atheist and humanist organizations. A typical example:
Amanda Metskas, President of the Secular Coalition for America, said today’s decision by the court will allow employers to impose their religious beliefs on their employees and interfere with the employees’ personal health care decisions.
“This is a sad day for anyone who believes in true religious freedom. With this decision the Supreme Court set a terrible precedent for religious interference in individual choice,” Metskas said. “This decision allows for-profit business owners to impose their religious preferences and practices on their employees, leaving the religious freedom of millions of Americans at the mercy of their individual employers.“