Third place: Graduate/mature student essay contest by Justin Clark

Disquieting decision: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

FFRF awarded Justin $1,000 for his essay.

By Justin Clark

The Supreme Court made a decision on June 30 that will be remembered for its uneven handling of justice and as a serious challenge to the secular institutions that have sustained the U.S. for over 230 years: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. For-profit corporations now have a “religious privilege” to not conform to the contraceptive coverage mandate as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. For the first time, personal religious rights have been conferred on for-profit corporations. Owners of “closely held” companies can impose their religious beliefs on their employees. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak noted, the decision has “opened the door to many challenges from corporations over laws that they claim violate their religious liberty.” That understates the case. Over 90% of all U.S. businesses are “closely held,” which means that while the majority opinion sees this as a narrow ruling, it actually applies the challenges to the ACA to corporate law as a whole. In effect, a private company can now challenge almost any law on “religious liberty” grounds. This terrible decision is not at all what the framers envisioned with the Establishment Clause. The decision stems from the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which, in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, has been appropriated to serve the ends of religious business owners who run entities such as Hobby Lobby. Equally troubling is that at no time in the majority opinion does Justice Samuel Alito even remotely define what “deeply held religious beliefs” are or how they allow corporations to discriminate against workers. He only intimates that “it is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.” While the explicit remark of the majority is certainly logical, based on the Establishment Clause, it is the implicit meaning that is deeply unsettling. The court has indirectly decided that the religious beliefs of the majority shareholders of a company trump employees’ rights. Picking and choosing who’s burdened or helped by RFRA sets an awful precedent, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent elucidates this beautifully:

No doubt the Greens . . . and all who share their beliefs may decline to acquire for themselves the contraceptives in question. But that choice may not be imposed on employees who hold other beliefs. Working for Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, in other words, should not deprive employees of the preventive care available to workers at the shop next door, at least in the absence of directions from the Legislature or Administration to do so.

That outlines perfectly the problematic aspect of this decision. The Establishment Clause mandates strict neutrality in religious matters, but because of the ruling’s broadening of RFRA, the government is now effectively picking winners and losers based on “deeply held religious beliefs.” This is corporate encroachment on individual liberties and protections, done in the name of religious liberty. It opens the floodgates for cases all over the country.

Secularism requires a position of neutrality, because the complications of defining a deeply held religious belief are astounding. RFRA should be amended or repealed altogether. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties should not have even been allowed to pursue a claim against forms of contraception in the first place. Calling contraception such as intrauterine devices the moral equivalent of abortion is not a position that the Supreme Court should decide, but it has done so at the expense of individual rights. This decision is dangerous, and future cases will make it only more so.

Justin Clark, 24, Peru, Ind., is pursing a master’s in public history at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis. He previously earned a bachelor’s in history/political science with a minor in philosophy from Indiana University-Kokomo.

Freedom From Religion Foundation