In a historic decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Hobby Lobby and two other family-owned businesses may opt out of Affordable Care Act mandates that employees provide insurance for certain contraceptives.  The ruling confirms that people don’t waive their religious rights just because they open a family business.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a careful and narrow decision, contrary to the “slippery slope” argument made by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others. The balanced decision stretched over 90 pages, and does not open the door to employers being granted religious exemptions to covering vaccines or paying minimum wage.  Justice Alito specifically wrote, “Our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate.”

Richard Wolf describes the range of opinions on the decision:

The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday on religious exemptions from President Obama’s health care law was narrowly limited, according to its authors — or wildly expansive, according to dissenters.

On the surface, this would not be something people get wildly upset about, even if they are firm believers in the contraception methods in question.  These will still be available if employees want them; they just won’t be covered by their employer’s health plan.  As David French wrote, “the decision blocks exactly no one from obtaining the drugs they choose to purchase. There’s just slightly less free stuff on the market.”

But he knows as well as anyone that there was more at stake here.  It was the right of individual business owners to decide how to run their own company.  “Hysterical reactions” by those who disagree with the decision show a strong commitment “to the power of the regulatory state.”  They believe the best way to care for citizens and solve our country’s problems is more government control.  The idea has been sneaking into public rhetoric “that somehow the act of forming a corporation and opening for business operates as an effective waiver of your most basic liberties, including free speech, free exercise of religion, and virtually the entire panoply of property rights.”

And this just isn’t the case.

The Obama Administration had already granted an exception on ACA-mandated contraception to nonprofits.  The Supreme Court ruled that the same could be granted to certain for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel.  Nonprofits were granted exemption on religious liberty grounds, because they were judged to be included under the term “person,” protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.  As Justice Alito’s decision explains, “no conceivable definition of the term [person] includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but not for-profit corporations.”

One of the important definitions in the decision is that of a “closely-held corporation.”  The ruling was limited to privately-held companies that do not have publicly-traded stock.  The actions of a company under the owners’ control is more directly associated with those owners, hence the Greens’ and Hahns’ objections to the mandated coverage.  Companies controlled by shareholders may be a different story.

Such careful framing of the decision ensures that the ruling does not open wide the door for religious exemptions from all sorts of laws – which would have indeed been foolish.

The Obamacare law was admittedly full of holes when passed.  One  missing piece was specifying exactly what care had to be covered.  It left that decision to be worked out by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who decided in 2012 that contraceptives were “essential.”  Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Greens, only objected to four out of 20 contraceptives listed by HHS.  These four they categorized as abortifacients and objected to based on deeply-held religious beliefs, which they have consistently demonstrated throughout their company’s life.  It wasn’t just an attempt to get out of the cost of providing coverage.

The Court confirmed their right to run their business according to their convictions, and not to pay heavy fines for doing so.

The Obama Administration has received another rebuke for its attempts to mandate broad sweeps of American life.  It can’t make employers violate their beliefs to cover preventive medical care that is truly optional, though some consider it essential. The people won’t let these broad mandates pass without a fight – and this battle, we won.

It was not only a victory for businesses like Hobby Lobby; it was a victory for the cause of self-governance.  Big Government fans may be weeping, but freedom-lovers are cheering.

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