Compelling Interest: A Simple Guide To Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court

Perhaps you have seen several news headlines speaking of Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court but are not exactly sure what is happening and what is at stake. Here is a simple outline of the major issues in the case for your consideration.

On Tuesday, March 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in the combined cases of  Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. SebeliusThe primary issue of the case concerns a mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also referred to as “Obamacare” (usually by its detractors), that requires employers to provide health insurance for their employees in compliance with the guidelines established for the Department of Health and Human Services by the Institute of Medicine. Those guidelines include required coverage for the full set of medically approved contraceptive methods. Both Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties object to four of the medically approved methods for contraception due to them being an “abortifacient.” An abortifacient is a birth control method designed to terminate a pregnancy, not simply prevent a pregnancy. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are asking for an exemption allowing them to offer policies without these four birth control methods. The basis for their exemption is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – an Act passed in 1993 whereby the government may not “substantially burden” a person’s religious freedom unless there is a clear “compelling interest” by the state.

Those are the basic facts of the case. Here are a few additional elements to know:

1. The first issue is whether or not a for-profit corporation exercises religion. This is a major point of debate among social media threads and bloggers. The free exercise of religion, many argue, is for individual persons, not for-profit corporations. Paul Clement, the attorney arguing for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, attempted to demonstrate from a previous Act how the word “person” is defined to include corporations. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli countered by asserting that for-profit corporations don’t exercise religion and that “there is not a single case in which a for-profit corporation was granted an exemption.”

2. From the transcript of the oral arguments, it seems the Justices were more concerned with the “compelling interest” issue of the RFRA than they were anything else. In other words, is the contraceptive mandate of the ACA a “compelling interest” for women’s and family health that would prevent any possibility of an exemption? Clement attempted to argue against the compelling interest status of contraceptive care by reminding the Court of the exemptions already given by the ACA to religious organizations and “grandfathered” plans. Why, Clement argued, if the government feels this particular service is a compelling interest have they been willing to allow exemptions in other circumstances? Verrilli countered by saying the provided exemptions are few and far between and that even the “grandfathered” plans will be experiencing changes over the next couple of years. Verrilli also mentioned other compelling interest issues that were slowly enacted in order to provide time for employers to adjust and plan.

3. Justice Kennedy, who is considered to be the “swing vote”, asked this question to Verrilli:  “Under your view, a profit corporation could be forced … in principle to pay for abortions.” Verrilli responded by saying, “If it were for a for-profit corporation and if such a law like that were enacted, then you’re right, under our theory . . . the for-profit corporation wouldn’t have an ability to sue.” I’m not a legal scholar, but that seems like a death blow for the state. 

Those are some of the more important aspects of the case. Please pray for the Justices and all parties involved in this momentous decision. 

2 Replies to “Compelling Interest: A Simple Guide To Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court”

  1. Not to distort the issue, but the primary point of the case seems to be whether or not a corporation is entitled to the same rights and freedoms as an individual. The Supreme Court took up this issue in the citizens united case dealing with campaign finance and found that corporations were to be treated as individuals. If this is the precedent that the Supreme Court has set, I don’t see how they could rule against Hobby Lobby in this case. With that said, I disagree with the ruling in citizens united because I believe corporations are incapable of shouldering the full responsibilities of individual citizens and thus they should not be granted the rights guaranteed to individuals. While I understand that the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with the birth control mandates of the ACA, as do I, they operate as a for-profit business and should be subject to the legislation passed by Congress. Christians who run corporations and operate their businesses upon Christian principles have every right to encourage their employees to make choices that align with their values, but they do not, and should not, have the right to force their beliefs on those who work for them.

    1. Thanks for the great comment Adam. What you mention is what I reference in my first point above. However, if you read the transcript of the oral arguments, I believe you will see that the Justices were much more interested in the compelling interest issue than they were the “person” language. It will be an interesting and important decision.

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