by Opinion Editor Gunter N. Franz, PhD
Associate Professor emeritus,
Department of Physiology and Pharmacology
West Virginia University School of Medicine
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling has evoked a variety of critical comments. Many of these comments claim that the Hobby Lobby ruling gives employers the right to deny their employees access to contraceptives; or that women of every religion should have the right to make their own healthcare decisions without input from their employers; or, most ominously, that the Hobby Lobby decision erodes liberty.
The problem with most of these negative comments is that they ignore the underlying facts of the case and overlook the broader Constitutional issues at stake. For example, the claim that employees are being denied access to contraception is absurd. Women have had access to contraception for decades. And the critics typically fail to mention that Hobby Lobby provides coverage for 16 out of the 20 methods of birth control mandated by the bureaucracy implementing the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”).
The owners of Hobby Lobby objected to being required to provide coverage for the remaining four methods, the drugs Plan B and Ella and two intra-uterine devices (IUDs). Hobby Lobby quite sensibly argued that, given the religious convictions of the owners, they should not have to pay for these drugs and devices that potentially produce an early abortion. Basing its ruling on the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (passed by Congress with overwhelming majorities and signed into law by President Clinton in 1993), the Supreme Court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby.
As to the claim that women of every religion should have the right to make their own healthcare decisions without input from their employers, these critics of the Hobby Lobby case see nothing wrong with Hobby Lobby being forced to provide “input” in the form of insurance premium payments—even if doing so violates the business owners’ religious beliefs. Following this logic, the freedom of acting according to one’s religious beliefs exists for some but not for all.
Finally, the Hobby Lobby decision actually advances the cause of liberty. The Supreme Court adjudicated the case on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Had it instead used the First Amendment it might have been more obvious that liberty had been preserved.
When we speak of “First-Amendment rights” we incorrectly imply that the First Amendment is the source of these liberties. In fact, the First Amendment assumes these liberties pre-exist. The actual purpose of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from interfering with these rights. Thus the amendment states: “Congress shall make no law [emphasis added] respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances.”
Well, Congress did pass a law (the Affordable Care Act) that gave the healthcare bureaucracy broad implementation powers which, among other edicts, resulted in the contraception coverage mandate for employers. The Hobby Lobby decision imposes limits on that mandate. In line with the First Amendment, the free exercise of religion in this case was preserved.
Believers and nonbelievers alike are free to promulgate their points of view and influence legislation. However, any resulting legislation is subject to the restrictions of the First Amendment. Thus church and state will not become unduly enmeshed into each other.
The problem is not that people like the owners of Hobby Lobby wish to act according to their religious beliefs. Rather the problem is that governmental bureaucracies feel free to act without restraint. The incompetence of the healthcare bureaucracy in implementing the Affordable Care Act was bad enough; but that it also felt free to encroach on our freedoms is truly alarming.