Among its many implications, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores means, at least for now, that government can’t require people of faith to become hypocrites when they walk through the front door of their businesses.
In this decision, the Court held that closely held for-profit corporations could bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and that Obama administration violated these businesses’ rights under RFRA by requiring them to provide certain contraceptives that could end life—a moral concern. In short, the beliefs of business owners counted with the courts and were protected under the law.
At one point, the Court rhetorically asks: “Is there any reason to think that the Congress that enacted such sweeping protection put small-business owners to the choice [of either giving up religious liberty or giving up the freedom to earn a living] that HHS suggests?” No, there is not.
The Court logically concluded that for-profit corporations can engage in religious activity and serve as vehicles for religious practice, just like individuals and nonprofit entities. Indeed, all these vehicles are driven by the human beings behind them. In so ruling, the Court has thankfully determined it would not require people of faith to contravene core beliefs and values just because they want to make a living.
Come Out of The Closet
The decision affirms the clear connection between faith and work—a connection Family Research Council discussed in our amicus brief filed in the case, and a connection now being threatened once again by Senate Democrats who have introduced legislation requiring even employers with religious objections to purchase potentially life-ending drugs and devices.
Although the Court has held the long arm of intrusive government at bay in this case involving compulsion of religious business owners, this fight is not over with the Hobby Lobby decision. Every day, many of our fellow Americans face the threat of being forced to violate their consciences by our own government in other areas of faith-based conviction. Thankfully, the Court has at least in this instance recognized the false dichotomy between faith and the rest of one’s life.
The Hobby Lobby majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, dismantled the much discussed and much criticized argument advanced by the government that the elements of profit-making and corporate form—though each independent and unrelated—somehow combined to deny the human beings engaged in commerce their constitutional religious freedoms and protections. To put it another way, you don’t have to keep your faith in the closet at work in fear of government action.
Free Enterprise Coexists With Religious Freedom
As the Court recognized, “[a] corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends,” and “[c]orporations, ‘separate and apart from’ the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.”
To hold otherwise would have denied the reality of how the businesses driving our economy function, and would have compelled Americans from all walks of life to behave hypocritically as they try to make money and support their families.
Even Justice Kennedy recognized this, writing that the “the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community” (emphasis added). The Court’s affirmation of the connection between faith and work is logical and comports with a long and rich history of robust religious exercise in the United States.
Two core American principles—encouraging free enterprise and practicing religious freedom—are embodied in one statement from the majority opinion: “HHS would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations.”
The Court would have none of it, noting that allowing “Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel to assert RFRA claims protects the religious liberty of the Greens and the Hahns”—the families running these businesses.
No wedge can fit between one’s faith and one’s business enterprise. It is impossible for the Greens and the Hahns to simply shut down beliefs which have long guided their lives and inspired their work. To require them to do so would have demanded that they act against their core beliefs. As the Court recognized, those of faith should not have to hit the delete button on their religious practice when it comes to supporting themselves and their families, or be forced to violate their conscience. Neither should they be forced to do so in other areas of their lives.
America has been built on the backs of small-business-owning families, like the Greens and the Hahns, for whom it is impossible to separate faith and work. Many of these families are merely seeking to live free from government intrusion in accord with their beliefs without being forced to violate their consciences. That is not too much to ask. Thankfully, the Court agreed.
Travis Weber, JD, LLM, is director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.