Hobby Lobby: Narrow ruling with broad impact

The Supreme Court majority ruled Monday that closely held corporations do not have to obey the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act if it

The Supreme Court majority ruled Monday that closely held corporations do not have to obey the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act if it collides with religious beliefs but claimed this was a moderate and limited decision. But no one else in the country seems to see the ruling that way.

The decision elicited immediate and emphatic cheers from one side, jeers from the other. The court majority ruled that Hobby Lobby Inc. had its free exercise of religion substantially burdened by the contraceptive mandate of the new health care law to provide birth control to employees and said the government had other ways to achieve its interests, including paying for contraception itself.

This is the first time the court has ruled that a for-profit entity can have religious beliefs akin to those of an individual.

It is hard to imagine that this will not presage a long civic argument about religious freedom and discrimination in the workplace and in the commercial world.  But the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, insists it is a narrow one:

…our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate. Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fail if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.

The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction… Our decision provides no such shield.

It is not precisely clear how and why this ruling will remain narrow as it is interpreted in the future.

Certainly, the losing side sees this as a sweeping loss. “In a decision of startling breadth,“ writes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent, “the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

That view echoed in the reaction chambers. “#SCOTUS gives CEOs the right to deny women insurance coverage for birth control based on their own personal beliefs,” Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, wrote on Twitter.

Neera Tanden of the Democratic think tank Center for American Progress said, “If it's not entirely clear that the majority of the Supreme Court has become an arm of conservative movement, you are not paying attention.”

The winning side made equally sweeping claims. Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement, "This decision protects the religious freedom that is guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment, and we're grateful the Court ruled on the side of liberty. The central issue of this case was whether the federal government can coerce Americans to violate their deeply held religious beliefs, and thankfully the Court has upheld the proper limits on the government's power.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, invoked The Star-Spangled Banner on Twitter, “Gave proof through the night that our First Amendment's still there…”

The ruling is likely to be tested around the country in various ways. For example, several states have tried to give legal protection to businesses that do not want to provide services to gay weddings.  Because this ruling gives religious rights to businesses and companies, these sorts of cases may become more common.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg said, “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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