*Co-authored with Trey Dimsdale
In the highly anticipated decision of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court issued a victory to closely held for-profit corporations on the issue of religious liberty. While the decision was not as sweeping as some may have wanted—or as Justice Ginsburg claimed in her dissent—the Court’s decision upheld the idea that Americans need not check their right to religious liberty at the door when they enter the business world.
At issue for the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby and Mardel, and the Hahn family, owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, was the fact that the government compelled them to violate their deeply held religious beliefs by providing abortifacient birth control drugs and devices to their employees as part of their employer-provided healthcare plans. The Greens and Hahns specifically believe that life begins at conception and any measure that extinguishes the life of a human embryo is a violation of that belief. As such, the Health and Human Services birth control mandate would cause them to violate their consciences.
One of the key issues before the Court was whether or not for-profit corporations fit the legal definition of a person for the sake of exercising religious liberty. In the summary of their decision, the majority of the Court noted, “Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.”
In a further explanation of this protection, the Court noted the Third Circuit’s argument that for-profit corporations “do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously-motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors.” In response to this conclusion, the Court stated, “All of this is true—but quite beside the point. Corporations, ‘separate and apart from’ the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.”
In making these statements, the Supreme Court tied the actions of closely held for-profit corporations directly to the actions and beliefs of their owners. Specifically, the Hahns and Greens can exercise their belief that life begins at conception through excluding certain types of birth control from their insurance plans.
The heart of this decision is in the Court’s determination that a corporation is a “person” under the meaning of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA establishes a very specific test which federal courts must apply in cases that deal with government action that infringes on a person’s free exercise of religion. HHS argued, and at least one appellate court agreed, that corporations are not “persons” capable of exercising religion. In that case, the RFRA would not apply to the issue before the Court. The Supreme Court, however, held that (in at least the case of closely held corporations), corporations areentitled to the protections offered by RFRA. The fact that corporations are not capable of participating in religious activities is irrelevant. In short, the Supreme Court recognizes that Hobby Lobby, Mardel, and Conestoga Wood Specialties are legitimate vehicles for the exercise and expression of their owners’ religious convictions.
This is a clear victory for business owners who believe that life begins at conception and that the HHS mandate violates such a belief. In keeping with the First Amendment and RFRA, owners of closely held corporations can exclude abortifacient birth control measures from their healthcare plans.
A second issue presented in the Court’s decision is that the government cannot determine certain religious beliefs are invalid because they do not like them. The Court argues, “Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question [i.e., that providing these birth control measures enables the commission of an immoral act], HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step.” Thus, HHS claimed it had the right to determine if the Greens and Hahns held a valid religious belief. The Court clearly held that is not the job of the government. The majority went on to say, “Similarly, in these cases, the Hahns and Greens and their companies sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial. Instead, our ‘narrow function . . . in this context is to determine’ whether the line drawn reflects ‘an honest conviction,’ . . . and there is no dispute that it does.”
If the government had its way, the Court argued that it could have excluded religious owners from the business world. According to the government’s argument, no insurance coverage mandate would have violated the RFRA, including third-trimester abortions and assisted suicide. The Court responded, “The owners of many closely held corporations could not in good conscience provide such coverage, and thus the HHS would effectively exclude these people from full participation in the economic life of the Nation.” Thankfully, the Court disagreed.
What does this mean for Christian business owners? Specifically related to the HHS mandate, owners of closely held corporations cannot be compelled to provide abortion-inducing drugs and devices as part of their healthcare plans. The Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is only applicable to closely held corporations. These are businesses which are organized under state law as corporations but are owned by a small number of individual shareholders. The companies involved in this case are all closely held, family-owned businesses. This is different from publicly held corporations that may have any number of shareholders who have invested money in the business.
Many people in our churches are likely to be part of such businesses. While they may not always have the number of employees that require mandatory health insurance coverage, there is potential that their businesses could grow to that point just as Hobby Lobby, Mardel, and Conestoga Wood Specialties.
This case could also foreshadow how the Court may decide other related cases, such as the cases involving the Little Sisters of the Poor and religious educational institutions. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions could extend similar religious freedom protections and exemptions to other types of organizations that Burwell v. Hobby Lobby does not.
We can rejoice in today’s victory for the Greens and Hahns, but there is still much work to be done in protecting religious liberty for people of faith in the marketplace.
Trey Dimsdale, J.D., serves as Research Fellow in Law and Public Policy for the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also one of my Ph.D. students in ethics.