Religious Freedom & Closely Held Corporations: The Hobby Lobby Case & Its Ethical Implications
65 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2014
Date Written: September 12, 2014
Hobby Lobby and its quest for religious freedom captured the attention of a nation for a few moments in late June 2014. The country homed in on the Supreme Court as the justices weighed the rights of an incorporated, profit-making entity run by devout individuals that objected to particular entitlements granted to women under the Affordable Care Act. The case raised important legal issues such as whether the law allows for-profit corporations to exercise religion (yes!) and whether protection for religious freedom trumps the rights of third parties to cost free preventive care (sort of!). The Supreme Court’s decision also brought to light some major ethical dilemmas such as: (1) whether the government has the right to second-guess a person’s religious beliefs, (2) when do religious beliefs become too attenuated from the actions they oppose to truly pose a burden on religion and (3) whether religion can only be experienced by human beings. Though the lawyers will move on to the next legal challenge, Americans in general must continue to grapple with these ethical dilemmas as citizens of a society needing to find the appropriate balance between religious freedom and improving public heath.
This article attempts to answer some of these questions by evaluating the Hobby Lobby case from many different angles. Part II recounts the stories underlying the legal challenge. These stories, often-neglected in law review articles and judicial opinions, when told in depth add context and nuance to the case and help bring to life topics that seem boring if analyzed purely in legalese. For example, the Greens tell a story of a family who consider their work at Hobby Lobby to fulfill their calling from God. They sincerely believe they are expected to practice their religion at work even if it costs the corporation, and themselves personally, a great deal of money. The federal government tells the story of a nation in desperate need of better and less expensive health care options -- particularly for women. The government claims that women need cost-free preventive care (and particularly cost-free contraceptives) in order to improve their health and reduce unwanted pregnancies. Better access to contraceptives will also give women more power to control their reproductive lives and compete more effectively in the workplace. Part II brings these litigants to life and sets the stage for a discussion of the law in Part III and the application of the law to these parties in Part IV.
More specifically, Part III synthesizes the state of the law surrounding religious freedom and preventive health care at the time the Hobby Lobby case hit the Supreme Court. The article recounts the history of religious freedom in America and how this concept worked its way into the first words of the First Amendment and eventually into the very broadly protective Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This part ends with an evaluation of the ACA’s contraceptive mandate and its requirements regarding access to cost free preventive care for women.
Part IV evaluates the court decisions in the Hobby Lobby case. The discussion begins with the District Court’s denial of Hobby Lobby’s request that mandate be stayed and ends with the Supreme Court’s decision issued on the last day of its October 2013 term. All in all, the discussion moves with the case from a federal district court (where Hobby Lobby asked for a preliminary injunction) to the Tenth Circuit Court of appeals (where that decision was affirmed) to the United States Supreme Court (where Hobby Lobby’s appeal was summarily denied) back to the Circuit Court sitting en banc (where the district court was urged to issue the preliminary injunction) back to the district court (where the judge reversed himself and issued the injunction) and finally to the Supreme Court (where Hobby Lobby emerged victorious). This part summarizes the lower court decisions and evaluates the Supreme Court decision in detail, section by section.
Part V, the final substantive part of the article, begins with the statement that the Court reached the correct legal decision in the case considering: (1) the important place religious exercise holds in the fabric of America, today and historically, (2) the broad brush with which Congress painted RFRA and (3) the fact that Hobby Lobby’s employees will still receive all twenty FDA-approved contraceptives at no cost. The discussion then moves to the ethical issues spun off by the Supreme Court decision. The three ethical dilemmas chosen for analysis revolve around the questions of whether corporations can exercise religion, whether it is ethical for religion to trump third party rights and whether governments have any business analyzing the beliefs of a religious adherent in order to better craft public policy.
The article concludes with a call for further research into potential answers to these and other ethical dilemmas keeping in mind that Hobby Lobby is just the first shoe to drop in the fight between religious freedom and parts of the Affordable Care Act.
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