The U.S. bishops conference said “justice has prevailed” in its reaction to today’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties. “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The court ruled that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “preventive services” mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as applied to these employers to the extent that it would have forced them to provide insurance coverage for drugs and devices that violate their religious convictions on respect for human life.
The bishops wrote in response: “In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom.
“The court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise,” the bishops added. “We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”
The court’s decision left open the possibility that the accommodation offered to exempt religious employers could also be applied to private employers which object to the contraception mandate. Reuters reports that the “White House will consider whether president can act on his own to mitigate effect of Supreme Court contraception ruling,” presumably along the lines of a similar accommodation strategy. So far I can find no comment on whether such an outcome (a private sphere “accommodation”) would simply result in the same legalistic quagmire that the U.S. bishops and other religious employers are already confronting in their various suits against the contraception mandate.
The American Civil Liberties Union deplored the decision, calling it a loss for women and arguing that religion was being used "as a license to discriminate": "The highest court in the country ruled today that it is acceptable for closely held corporations to use their religious beliefs to take away benefits guaranteed to their employees by law—something the Supreme Court has never before sanctioned," the ACLU noted in a statement at its website. "Everyone has the right to his or her religious beliefs, but those beliefs cannot be imposed on others.
"At issue in today’s case is part of the Affordable Care Act that requires health plans to cover contraception without a co-pay. This law was designed to ensure women’s equality by eliminating the disparities in health care costs between men and women, and to ensure women have the ability to make decisions about whether and when to become parents, which in turns allow them to participate equally in society.
"Women who work at Hobby Lobby and other closely held companies with religious objections to providing contraception coverage will now be denied that coverage, which will impact their reproductive health and other aspects of their lives. These women will also face dignitary harm knowing that their employers are singling out health care coverage that only women need."
Earlier today the the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, through its spokesperson Dan Andriacco, had this reaction to the court’s ruling:
“In opposing the HHS mandate, the church has done so not only on behalf of religious institutions, but also out of concern for the rights of business owners who are forced to violate their conscience or pay a fine. As Pope Francis said in Evangelli Gaudium, ‘No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life.’ In other words, religious freedom is more than just the freedom to worship, but also the freedom to live our faith in the world. The Supreme Court today has recognized that basic human right.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference pronounced itself cheered by the ruling. “In its decision in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Products cases, the Court properly concluded that religious conscience of closely held businesses is to be protected from government coercion. Further, the Court determined that the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate is improper as it forces a closely held company to pay for coverage of products and services that violate the owners’ firmly held religious beliefs.”
The Pennsylvania bishops noted that the decision could have implications for various challenges to the existing accommodation offered to religious employers from the HHS mandate on contraception. “Religious ministries of service—such as charities, schools, health care facilities and institutions of higher education—are given, at best, second-class status under the law in the form of a still-murky ‘accommodation.’ Many religious entities, including Catholic dioceses, are challenging this mandate in federal courts across the country.
“The Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania express the hope that, in light of this ruling, the Obama Administration will do the right thing and withdraw the mandate as it has been applied to religious ministries. That step will bring to an end litigation which religious ministries were forced to undertake to protect their religious conscience and to assure that statutory and constitutional protections would not be trampled.
In a post at the website for the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good, spokesperson Christopher Hale wrote (updated: 2:50 pm): “While we are still studying the details of the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, we believe this ruling is an imperfect attempt to uphold the American tradition of protecting the religious liberty of the citizens of the United States. We are glad to see that the Supreme Court thinks that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act narrowly applies to some privately and closely held corporations. That being said, we remain committed to seeing the implementation of health care reform throughout the nation. While asserting the right of individuals and religious organizations to practice their religion without undue interference of the federal government, we too believe that access to quality health care is a God-given right for all Americans. This case once again proves the necessity of a single-payer health care system where access is not dependent on one's job."
Bloggers at Politico contemplated the political impact of the decision:
"The contraception coverage mandate isn’t central to the [Affordable Care Act], the way the individual mandate is. By letting some closely held employers — like family-owned businesses — opt out of the coverage if they have religious objections, the justices haven’t blown a hole in the law that unravels its ability to cover millions of Americans. They didn’t even overturn the contraception coverage rule itself. They just carved out an exemption for some employers from one benefit, one that wasn’t even spelled out when the law was passed.
"But politically, that doesn’t matter.
"What matters is that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Obama administration overreached on one of the most sensitive cultural controversies in modern politics. And in doing so, the justices have given the Affordable Care Act one more setback that it didn’t need heading into the mid-term elections."
At the OnFaith blog Brian McLaren wondered if the decision might in practice turn out to mean more abortions and at Mirror of Justice Thomas Berg writes: The broad issues are resolved in the plaintiffs' favor (rightly in my view): for-profit closely-held corporations can be persons exercising religion, and the coverage mandate with accompanying fines and assessments imposes a substantial burden.
“The Court dodges the compelling-interest question and decides the case on 'less restrictive means': the majority opinion and the Kennedy concurrence ultimately point to the insurer-pays accommodation for nonprofits as a less restrictive means of providing contraception coverage. I think the opinion and concurrence imply that some form of the nonprofit accommodation will be held a permissible solution (perhaps with tweaking about who the notification of opt-out must be sent to.)….I also think this is a good result. RFRA should apply in the commercial sphere and should be taken seriously, but it also was not meant to—and should not—cut a swath of destruction through general commercial regulation.”
Coincidentally Gallup reported today that Americans' confidence in the Supreme Court had reached a record low of 30 percent. In fact Gallup reports that confidence levels in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, also record lows for Congress at 7 percent. Confidence in the presidency reached a six-year low of 29 percent.
Gallup has tracked confidence in the Supreme Court since 1973. The institution's record high of 56 percent was reached twice, in 1985 and 1988. Gallup notes: “While Americans clearly have the lowest amount of confidence in the legislative branch, ratings for all three are down and are at or near their lowest points to date. At this point, Americans place much greater faith in the military and the police than in any of the three branches of government.”