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Hobby Lobby and the Religious Freedoms of Corporations


The Supreme Court handed down an emergency order on Thursday evening that allowed Wheaton College to refuse to fill out a form stating that it had religious objections to providing contraceptive insurance coverage to its students and employees.  This flies in the face of Justice Alito’s claim in the Hobby Lobby decision that the use of this form would be a viable and less burdensome alternative for Hobby Lobby to use in furthering its refusal to provide contraceptive insurance coverage to its employees.

For reasons that are beyond my understanding, the Court feels that it is too burdensome for an organization to have to fill out a form that simply states that it refuses to provide the mandated insurance and send the form to the insurance company.  Somehow, signing such a form is a burdensome violation of one’s religious beliefs, too burdensome for Wheaton College.  The College claims that, by signing the form and sending it to the insurance company, they are in some way tacitly agreeing to the provision of religiously objectionable birth control methods by the insurance company.  They insist that they can only send the government a letter to that effect, not send the letter to the insurance company; signing the form and sending it to the insurance company is tantamount to providing the prohibited contraceptives themselves.

This objection goes beyond religious scruples and enters the domain of religious fantasy.  They think that, somehow, by not sending the letter to the insurance company, they can register their objections in a more effective manner.  Never mind that the affected women will still obtain contraceptives through the insurance companies, as a result of government action.  Never mind that, no matter how hard they try, a private company cannot prevent its employees from engaging in sexual intercourse and simultaneously not taking the risk of having children.

The myopia of religious people knows no bounds.

Wheaton College is no isolated case: there are at least 122 cases pending in lower courts that voice the same objection to sending the form to the insurance companies.

The Slate writers state that “The most important precedent is United States v. Lee, which rejected an Amish employer’s claim for an exemption from paying Social Security taxes. In Lee, the court wrote that “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.” It hard to imagine a precedent more directly foreclosing Hobby Lobby’s exemption to paying for contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act.”

The majority in the Hobby Lobby case has treated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as an excuse to make a complete break from this precedent, in order to signal that it reverses the judgement in the case in which the Court sanctioned the firing of Native Americans who used peyote as part of their religious observances.  Justice Alito stated in his opinion that: “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs…”  However, he appears to ignore all previous precedents as if they were annulled by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  He states that RFRA is “a complete separation from First Amendment case law.”

Justice Sotomayor’s response to this outrageous coddling of Christian fundamentalists: “Let me be absolutely clear,” she wrote, “I do not doubt that Wheaton genuinely believes that signing the self-certification form is contrary to its religious beliefs. But thinking one’s religious beliefs are substantially burdened—no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be—does not make it so.”

The Court’s decisions have lifted the burden on the employer’s exercise of religious scruples and placed the burden directly upon the employees.  Never mind that the employer’s free exercise of religion impairs the employee’s free exercise of personal choices which are theoretically based on their own consciences, not the company’s.

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