A victory for liberty
Sometimes the government has to be told, "This far — and no farther."
David Green, the devoutly religious founder of Hobby Lobby, is an exemplary businessman and corporate citizen. Starting from scratch in 1972 with a $600 loan, he built his enterprise into a nearly 600-store chain that donates 10 percent of its profits to charity, pays substantially more (at least $14 an hour) than the minimum wage to full-time employees and closes on Sundays.
Green reports that his goal as an employer is to provide a "positive environment that happens to be based on biblical principles" to his 13,000-plus employees.
But owing to his unwillingness to subsidize abortion, Green ran afoul of the Obamacare mandate that his business fund wide-ranging birth control services for employees. Green was willing to fund 16 kinds of contraception for his employees, but not four others he characterized as "abortifacients."
President Obama and his administration demanded all 20 and threatened to impose fines of hundreds of millions of dollars per year if Green did not comply.
The long-running dispute between the Hobby Lobby's chief executive and this nation's chief executive ended Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that requiring a closely held corporation founded on biblical principles to fund the disputed contraceptive services violates a federal law written to protect religious freedom.
The ruling, which applies only to a narrow set of facts, is a victory for those of religious faith who resist being compelled by government to engage in morally repugnant behavior. Justice Ruth Ginsburg, one of the dissenters in the 5-4 decision, sees it differently. She sounded an alarm about the decision, characterizing it as one that could apply to all corporations and issues.
Conservatives can only wish that the court's ruling is as broad as critics say it is. In reality, it is narrowly tailored to apply only under a most unusual set of facts. But that's exactly what former President Bill Clinton intended when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in 1993.
A huge majority of Congress — only three dissenters in both the House and Senate — passed the law that governed the court's ruling.
"What this law basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion," Clinton said.
In this case, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said other alternatives besides coercing Green and Hobby Lobby are available to make the full array of contraceptive services available to women. In that context, the court said, it is inappropriate for the government to compel Hobby Lobby to engage in conduct that the government freely conceded violated the corporate founders' religious beliefs.
This decision ought to be applauded, not just because of Green's individual triumph over a heavy-handed federal government, but because it vindicates the rights of all religious believers to follow their conscience. The court's ruling is a victory for our pluralistic society and all those who embrace tolerance of those who depart from the norm.
Critics have made much of the status of Hobby Lobby as a commercial enterprise, and they are certainly correct, at least on first blush, that corporations are not people. But corporations are run by people, in the case of Hobby Lobby sincerely religious people who live their faith in a way that cannot be denied. When the government ordered Hobby Lobby about, it really was ordering Green and other company owners to act in a way that is deeply contrary to their faith.
Fortunately, under our U.S. Constitution and under our laws, there's a limit to government's authority. The right to freely exercise one's religion is a fundamental concept on which this nation was founded. There aren't many businesses that operate like Hobby Lobby, but their scarcity makes them no less deserving of the full protection of the law. Indeed, it's their scarcity — their unique devotion to their faith — that makes them the perfect subject of this important Supreme Court decision.