01 July 2014

Hobby Lobby Explicated

For some reason, people's inability to understand the Hobby Lobby case is bothering me more than people's general inability to understand SCOTUS decisions, so I thought I'd take a crack at setting out the court's reasoning.

1. In the 90's, two Native Americans were fired from their job because they tested positive for the use of peyote.

2. They applied for unemployment insurance and were denied because they were fired for good cause, having tested positive for using peyote.

3. The Native Americans argued that denying them unemployment insurance burdened their exercise of their religion, which involved using peyote, and was thus unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

4. The Supreme Court held that, if a law is generally applicable to everyone -- in context, if the law is not about religion -- then the Constitution does not give people any exemption even if that law burdens their religious beliefs. (That is, the Native Americans have to choose between their religious practice of using peyote and getting unemployment insurance.)

5. Congress didn't like that result, and so it passed a law (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)) that said that there is an exception to any law of general application if it burdens a person's religious beliefs, unless the interest served by the law is compelling and imposes the least possible burden consistent with that compelling interest. "Person" is not defined in RFRA, but there's another statute that says, among other things, that whenever the word "person" is used in federal law, it includes corporations. RFRA also says that Congress can include a provision in any future statute saying that it is not subject to RFRA.

6. 20 years later, Congress passed health care reform (HCR). There is no provision in HCR saying that RFRA doesn't apply.

7. After HCR passed, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a regulation that requires all employer provided health insurance plans to cover the cost of 20 specific contraceptives.

8. The owners of Hobby Lobby say that they are devout Christians and have a religious objection to providing health insurance that covers 4 of the 20 required contraceptives because those 4 could stop an embryo from implanting in the mother's womb and thus result in the death of the embryo, which they consider murder.

9. Hobby Lobby claimed that HHS' regulation burdened its owners' religious beliefs by involving them (in their own opinion) in murder if they had to provide insurance covering the 4 specific contraceptives.

10. The government claimed, first, that RFRA doesn't apply to for-profit corporations because they can't have religious beliefs and, second, that its regulation isn't a substantial burden.

11. It is clear that RFRA applies to corporations and the government didn't argue otherwise. Among other things, churches are corporations and everyone agreed that a church could sue under RFRA.

12. But can for-profit corporations have a religious belief? The government argued no. The Court held, yes. It had previously decided religious freedom cases brought by corporations; religious freedom cases brought by businesses, and religious freedom cases brought by business corporations (a Kosher butcher sued Massachusetts, arguing that it should not be subject to Massachusetts' Sunday closing law because it also had to be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath).

13. The Court assumed that the government's interest in the HHS regulations was compelling because it held that it clearly wasn't the least restrictive regulation possible. HHS had exempted non-profit corporations from its regulation and the Court held that the least restrictive regulation possible would have exempted Hobby Lobby too.