I have said before, and I will say it again that Obamacare’s contraception mandate forces one of the most egregious violations of religious liberty in our nation’s history. It forces pro-life business owners to pay for insurance plans that cover abortion-inducing birth control methods. For this reason, there was much at stake today in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.
That is why I breathed a sigh of relief when the Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby earlier today. In a narrow decision (5-4), the Court ruled that the federal government cannot run roughshod over the religious liberty of its citizens. In short, the Court found that the government must find the least restrictive means possible to advance the government’s compelling interest in providing free contraception to women. The Court’s majority said that the contraception mandate is in no way the “least restrictive means.” Not by a longshot. Because of this, the mandate runs afoul of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993). And so the Court found that Hobby Lobby does not have to submit to this unjust and coercive mandate embedded in Obamacare.
I cannot overstate how grateful I am for this decision. The Court’s ruling today will have ripple effects for generations to come. Some of the initial analysis after the decision focused on the blow this decision delivers to President Obama’s administration. I agree with that assessment, but that is small potatoes compared to the bigger picture. This decision is much bigger than the politics of the moment. Long after President Obama is gone, this decision will still be seen as a landmark case protecting a robust definition of religious freedom. And if this broad definition is unclear to some, it is not unclear to Justice Kennedy who wrote an opinion concurring with the majority. He writes,
In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief… It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.
Against those who say that religious liberty ends at the front door of your church (a.k.a., freedom of worship), Kennedy agrees with the long tradition that says citizens must be free to practice their faith in their everyday lives (a.k.a., freedom of religion). In this case, the Court’s majority finds that the owners of Hobby Lobby should be free to run their business in a way that doesn’t implicate them in abortifacient birth control measures. Thus the Court has come down on the side of religious freedom, and this is an unmitigated good.
The troubling side to this decision, however, is that it was only a 5-4 decision. Only a bare majority of the justices acknowledged what would have been an egregious violation of our first freedom—religious liberty. The other four justices stood against this freedom, and they did so in a way that reflects the larger cultural divide in our country.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg agreed that the Green family’s “religious convictions regarding contraception are sincerely held” (p. 21). Nevertheless, she argues that their sincerely held beliefs are not a sufficient reason to find in their favor. For her, it doesn’t matter if their beliefs are sincere. The only thing that matters ultimately is whether or not the court thinks their consciences should be offended. In effect, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer believe that the job of the Supreme Court is to pass judgment on the religious views of the American public. In this case, they believe the Greens’s beliefs are flawed and can be dismissed as irrelevant. This is chilling.
It is sobering to think that a single vote could have swung this decision the other way. A single vote could have turned a triumph for our first freedom into a calamitous defeat. It is also sobering to realize that a growing number of Americans appear to have the same indifference toward religious liberty that the Court’s minority has. All of this indicates that this struggle is far from over. Nevertheless, today’s decision is a step in the right direction. Those of us who care about religious liberty will have to be vigilant if we want this progress to continue.