Stone on the Pending Hobby Lobby Decision
Sometime in the next week or two, the Supreme Court will hand down its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which raises the question of whether a corporation has a legal right to refuse to comply with provisions of the Affordable Care Act that require it to provide contraceptive health insurance coverage for its women employees. Hobby Lobby maintains that it must be granted an exemption from the law because compliance would conflict with the corporation’s religious beliefs.
Although people tend to think the case poses a First Amendment question, in fact it poses only a statutory question: whether the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act gives Hobby Lobby a statutory right not to comply with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the constitutional background of the case, because that background explains how and why the issue has been framed the way it has.
The First Amendment provides, among other things, that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. It has long been settled that the Free Exercise Clause forbids the government to discriminate against individuals because of their religion. For example, a law prohibiting Jews from holding public office, forbidding Catholics to attend public schools, or banning Muslims from serving as police officers would clearly violate the Free Exercise Clause.