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Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Real Force Behind the Hobby Lobby Decison is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - Not Five Justices

I've been reading the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case and it's just fascinating. But the press coverage and talking head rhetoric is so hyperbolic, discussion of the majority's reasoning are all but absent. I wanted to understand it. What I've learned is that many folks have no idea what the case was really about or what the court was being asked to decide. Folks clearly have no knowledge of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which is the legislation at the heart of all of this.

I will not engage in any discussion of the impact of the ruling. And I'm certainly not saying it was a good decision or a bad decision. Please do not read anything into what I've written. As I said, I'm just exploring the logic behind the ruling.

First and foremost, a critical thing to understand at the outset is that sole proprietorships and general partnerships were already recognized as individuals and as individuals they could seek an exemption from contraceptive mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.  Non-profit religious organization were also able to request exemptions. I've heard a lot of people say variations of "employers shouldn't be making health care decisions for employees." But that was already happening and was specifically allowed. It is estimated that approximately 30% of employees work for employers exempted from the contraceptive mandate. In fact, a lower court Judge argued that so many employers have been exempted from the mandate that the Obama Administration could not claim there was a compelling state interest in imposing the mandate.

Many talking heads are saying that in the Hobby Lobby case the court "again" decided that corporations were people with rights. But that's incorrect. In the Hobby Lobby case the majority didn't grant the contraceptive exemption based on corporations being "persons" with religious freedom under the RFRA. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court acknowledged that corporations are fictitious persons. But in a closely held corporation where 5 or fewer people own the majority of the company the court majority ruled that when government compels the corporation to do something it is really compelling those 5 people to do something - there is no diffuse ownership. In that case, the RFRA protections apply. So the Hobby Lobby decision basically said that in closely held corporations the fictitious person gives way to actual persons. Remember, it's already established and accepted that individuals, sole proprietorships, and general partnerships can seek exemptions based on religious beliefs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It just wasn't settled whether for-profit corporations could. Alito essentially bypassed that issue by saying that we're really dealing with individuals.

From the ruling: "A corporation, being a fictitious construct with no real existence in the context of a closely-held corporation, is too slight and gossamer a thing to put any weight upon as far as distinguishing burdens placed on it and burdens placed on its owners."

In other words, if individuals, sole proprietors, or general partnerships can seek an exemption then the owners of a closely held corporation could as well as they are little different from general partnerships.  In a general partnership and a closely held corporation - you are essentially dealing with individuals.

Justice Alito wrote in his opinion that he can't imagine there are any large corporations (many people owning the majority of stock) that would be able demonstrate eligibility for a religious exemption. Ownership of large corporations is so widely diffused that there is really no way to demonstrate that the "owners" are being asked to violate their beliefs. Alito also said that this was a narrow ruling and it would not open the door for corporations to seek exemptions from other services like immunizations or blood transfusions.

Justice Ginsburg argued in her dissent that the ruling was actually quite broad and it opened the door to all sorts of religious exemption claims. She also argued that for-profit corporations cannot claim religious exemptions because they are first and foremost organized for competition  and customers in the commercial market place and not for the primary purpose of serving their religious beliefs or serving fellow adherents to their religion. Interestingly, Justices Breyer and Kagan did not sign on to Justice Ginsburg's dissent, specifically the part where Ginsburg addressed the corporation question.

So that's pretty much it. This case was never really about the right to access to contraceptives, that wasn't the issue before the court. The case revolved around the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and whether its protections applied to corporations like the Hobby Lobby. As Paul Horowitz wrote in today's New York Times,
"The decision in Hobby Lobby was no shock to anyone familiar with the heavy weight that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act places on religious accommodation. The fate of the case was sealed 21 years ago — not by a slim majority of the court, but by virtually every member of Congress. "

The RFRA already established that folks could claim a religious exemption. And roughly 30% of all employees in the US were already exempt from the mandate. The majority of the court determined that that the owners of closely held corporations have the same protections as similar non-incorporated employers.

The real issue here is not the ruling of 5 Justices, the real issue is a very broad piece of legislation enacted in 1993 - the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.  In my book, American Government and Popular Discontent, I write that Congress has increasingly come to rely on broadly written legislation. They do so because specificity creates openings for dissent and division. As a result of broad and ambiguous laws it often falls on the courts to determine what the law actually means.

Many of the folks who voted for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act are still in Congress (There is even an e-mail in which Elena Kagan, while working for President Clinton 1999, celebrated the act). Some are now saying they never intended it to be so broadly applied. Sorry, but that just doesn't fly. When you vote for an ambiguous law, when you opt to skip specificity just to ensure passage and avoid controversy, you must accept some responsibility when a court is called upon to provide that specificity.