Editorial: Hobby Lobby justice

The June 30 Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case dealt a severe blow to the efforts of the Department of Health and Human Services, and by extension the Obama administration, to force some companies into providing contraceptive and other services deemed morally objectionable. While scholars will be studying the decision for months, we draw two immediate conclusions: First, this is an important victory in defense of religious liberty. Second, we must not relax our resolve, for the struggle is far from over.

First, the high court by a 5-4 decision has soundly rejected the HHS mandate forcing “closely held” companies to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations for their employees and their families, even when such actions violate deeply held religious beliefs. The decision rejected the government’s contention that for-profit corporations were not eligible for the protections extended by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It also ruled that even if the government believed it had a “compelling interest” in mandating such coverage, it was imposing an undue burden — extremely onerous fines — on the companies, and it had an alternative accommodation (for nonprofits) that HHS itself asserts will satisfy its mandate’s requirements.

While this was an important victory for religious liberty, we must not relax our resolve, for the struggle is far from over.

The exquisite irony of this line of reasoning is that the accommodation that the administration so cleverly concocted in February 2013 to force religious nonprofit employers such as Our Sunday Visitor to tolerate providing employees and their families abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization turned out to be the exception that broke the mandate. Because the administration had already proposed that some corporations — religious-based nonprofits — could win exemption from the regulations, there was no reason it could not extend this exemption to for-profits.

In the course of its reasoning, the high court recognized that the extraordinary fines the government sought to impose on recalcitrant companies — $36,500 per affected employee per year — was a clear example of a “substantial burden.” Indeed, one of the most worrisome aspects of the HHS mandate continues to be the blatant ideological bullying represented by these fines. The majority decision noted that Hobby Lobby could have canceled all health insurance for its employees and paid $26 million in fines per year. But because the company objected to the abortion-inducing drugs only, its fines would have been raised to $475 million a year. All Americans may not agree with Hobby Lobby’s values, but they should be able to recognize ideological coercion when they see it. Forcing a religious company to deny health care to its employees in order to avoid a more offensive government mandate is coercion.

But vigilance is in order despite this one victory. Another 51 cases representing religious nonprofit organizations are wending their way through the judicial system now. It is likely that the high court will not rule on their claims until summer 2015. This means that many, if not most, of these organizations still face the risk of onerous fines should they ultimately lose. And while much is hopeful about the Hobby Lobby decision, it is not clear if the court will support the objections of religious nonprofits to the “accommodation” that transfers responsibility to the insurer or third-party administrator.

It is providential that the court’s decision arrived during the Fortnight for Freedom, the U.S. bishops’ campaign to raise prayers and raise awareness for religious freedom. The time for prayer is not yet over.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor