Hobby Lobby ruling steps over the line, misses balance

July 4, 2014 

We worry that Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby’s claim of religious persecution sets a dangerous precedent with consequences for both secular and religious freedoms.

The court’s conservative wing ruled that coverage requirements in the Affordable Care Act imposed a substantial burden on religious liberty. Critics of the ruling charge that it opens the floodgates to claims from other corporations for religious exemptions even though their business isn’t religious in nature. That would be bad for everyone from employers to employees.

The owners of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based Conestoga Wood Specialties had challenged the ACA’s requirement that their firms offer insurance covering drugs and devices that they contend end human life after conception. While the firms’ owners don’t oppose all contraceptives, they said covering such drugs and devices forced them to violate their religious beliefs.

Family planning is a personal decision, not a corporate decision to be made on behalf of employees. And what about the burden put on employees? Hobby Lobby isn’t a church or a religious organization with a faith-based mission. Based on a business owner’s beliefs, some companies now might be able to deny coverage for vaccinations and blood transfusions on religious grounds.

We had hoped the Supreme Court wouldn’t slide down this slippery slope, which reverses the prevailing wisdom of previous courts. Never before had a business been granted a religious exemption from a law when that exemption would allow business owners to impose their religious beliefs on employees.

Until now, courts had rarely granted religious exemptions at all. What makes a craft shop like Hobby Lobby different from a bank or another enterprise whose owners also profess strong religious convictions?

Two years ago, the ACA required the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to include birth control in health coverage plans. This newspaper urged the federal government to find a way to acknowledge the unique religious missions of those institutions while making sure their employees have access to insurance coverage.

The Obama administration later exempted churches from the mandate and provided a workaround for religiously affiliated hospitals, schools and other organizations. We applauded that because it attempted to balance religious and secular concerns.

By extending conscientious objector status to secular corporations in this case, the court missed the balance. Religious freedom is an individual right, and the court majority just made it an unwieldy corporate one.

The Dallas Morning News

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