Five years ago this week, on June 30, 2014, for the first time in the history of the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that some for-profit corporations could, like human beings, exercise religious beliefs and exempt themselves from general laws that violate those beliefs. Five justices bestowed upon a handful of business owners the right to deny thousands of their employees the contraception method of their choice otherwise guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Guess who performed this legal baptism?
Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority quintet. His rationale seemed to be:
- The statute at issue, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), doesn’t specifically exclude for-profit corporations as protected “persons” who collectively exercise religion and deserve exemption from laws, so the court relies on the legal Dictionary Act, which states: “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise … the words ‘person’ and ‘whoever’ include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.”
- Religious exemption requests are taken at face value — without regard for actual scientific evidence. In the Hobby Lobby case, the religious exemption was requested based on the claim that some forms of contraception are infanticide (Plan B, ella, and IUDs). (Such claims are false. Per the Guttmacher Institute, “The weight of the evidence clearly shows that emergency contraceptives and IUDs are not abortifacients.”)
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not implemented a legally acceptable accommodation for for-profit corporations (our new “persons”). Alito suggested a workaround that the government provide these women contraceptives (with tax dollars) instead. (Subsequent to the decision, an HHS accommodation was reached to allow these closely held, for-profit corporations to use the same opt-out procedure allowed for entities operated by religious groups — e.g., universities, hospitals, and charities).
- This is a narrow decision that won’t open the floodgates of other religious objections to other laws. (More on this later.)