Who’s afraid of Hobby Lobby?

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision exempting closely-held, for-profit corporations from having to pay for health plans that cover certain forms of contraception, should the owners have a religious objection to same.

A predictable outcry from the left (and plenty of gloating from the right) resulted.  But Doug Mataconis (whose readers will know he has no religious objections to birth control – or anything else, really) argues that the decision is quite limited in scope, and was probably inevitable under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Clinton:

First of all, the Supreme Court did not rule today that all for-profit corporations may make claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Instead, it limited its opinion to “closely held corporations,” which are typically defined as corporations where a majority of the shares are owned by five or fewer people (although the number can vary from state to state). Most closely held corporations are small businesses that don’t even have enough employees to fall under the requirement that employers provide coverage to their employees under the PPACA. Some, however, like Hobby Lobby, are larger corporations that still happened to be owned by a small number of people. …

…Reading the language of the statute, one has to admit that they had a strong argument in their favor in that regard and it’s difficult for me to say that the Court was wrong in its interpretation of the law here. Part of what the law requires is that the Court balance the religious claims asserted by the employers with the interests asserted by the government. In this case, the interest in question would be providing increased access to birth control to women. Even if you agree that this is a legitimate and important government interest though, it’s plainly obvious that there are means by which the government could accomplish this goal without requiring employers like the Greens to violate their religious beliefs. The most obvious means, of course, would be some form of direct subsidy to employees but there are other means as well. In addition, the Court found that the mandate in question placed a “substantial burden” on the religious liberties of the Greens and those similarly situated to them. Given this, the balancing test came down clearly in favor of the Greens.

Third, as noted above, the Court did not say that RFRA gives owners of companies like Hobby Lobby the right to refuse a whole host of items typically covered under a health insurance policy just because they might have a religious objection to those procedures. So, this case is not going to lead to Jehovah Witness employers refusing to cover blood transfusions or transplants. The Court also said that the holding should not be seen as meaning that a private employer of any kind could avoid liability for a claim of illegal discrimination based on their religious beliefs. This would seem to be addressed to concerns regarding people trying to use religion to avoid liability under laws banning discrimination against people based on sexual orientation. Obviously, what this decision actually means for future cases will depend on the facts of those cases and the Judges that hear them. However, it’s important to note that, just as it did in the Heller gun control case, the Supreme Court seems to be sending a signal here that its holding is not as broad as some advocates for one side or the other might hope or fear.

[…]

As for the opinion itself, I think the Court got the result right for the most part. In the end, a closely held corporation is really nothing more than a partnership with tax advantages. What ever you might call it, it is still a business that is owned by a small amount of people. If Hobby Lobby were a partnership or sole proprietorship, there would be no question that the Greens would be within their rights to assert a religious objection under the RFRA. Given that, it doesn’t strike me as being all that radical to say that they retain those rights when they enter into a different kind of business form that, ultimately, was chosen so that they could expand the company to the national operation employing thousands of people that it is today. We are still talking ultimately about the individuals who own the company and their rights, which is why this decision would not make any sense if you applied it to a publicly traded corporation owned by tens of thousands of individuals and institutions like Apple, or Exxon Mobil. …

There are perfectly reasonable objections to the Hobby Lobby ruling, but I don’t think it brings America any closer to The Handmaid’s Tale any more than the recent flurry of pro-gay-marriage rulings is turning the country into Sodom.

Speaking of which…

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