Never mind the adage about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. The U.S. Supreme Court defers to those who invoke religious belief, even if their personhood resides in a for-profit corporation. In another 5-4 decision dividing the court’s conservatives and liberals, the justices Monday took a radical step that disturbs the fine balance between an individual’s right to the free exercise of religion and the rights of other Americans.
Yet in his majority opinion, Associate Justice Samuel Alito downplayed the significance of what the court was recklessly doing. He wrote “ ... our holding is very specific. We do not hold, as the principal dissent alleges, that for-profit corporations and other commercial enterprises can ‘opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.’ ”
Americans should hope this is true but there is reason for skepticism. At every turn, Justice Alito and his confederates gave the benefit of a doubt to those who challenged requirements of the Affordable Care Act for some types of contraception coverage.
If this is an indication of the future, the case of Sylvia Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services, v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialities Corp., could loom as large as the notorious Citizens United case in its capacity for mischief. Just as in Citizens United, the question of whether a corporation can be considered a person loomed large.
The closely held corporations successfully argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act gave them a pass on providing contraception as part of their employees’ health insurance plans. It didn’t matter they were set up as for-profit corporations. They were a person under the act and capable of the free exercise of religion, Justice Alito said.
Not so, said Associate Justice Ginsburg, the author of the principal dissent, rebutting the court’s decision as one of “startling breadth.” Putting her finger on the collateral damage, she decried the impact on “in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga ...” And that may be just for starters.
This is a troubling decision. It is as if the Supreme Court were hell-bent on defending religion and never mind the cost to those who don’t share the boss’s beliefs.