This morning the Supreme Court released its decision in the cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius about the ability of the government to force businesses and business owners to violate their religious principles by mandating contraception and abortifacients.
The decision is a narrowly defined 5-4 win for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood that says closely held corporations, like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, cannot be required to provide contraception coverage.
RFRA applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held for-profit corporations like Conestoga, HL and Mardel.
The Court says that the government has failed to show that the mandate is the least restrictive means of advancing its interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to birth control.
Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion says that the government could pay for the coverage itself, so that women receive it.
Here is a further attempt at qualification: This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs.
Here is more qualification: It does not provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.
To be clear: the Court holds that corporations (including for-profit corporations) are "persons" for purposes of RFRA. The additional question was whether corporations can have a religious "belief" within the meaning of RFRA. On that question, the Court limits its holding to closely held corporations, leaving for another day whether larger, publicly traded corporations have religious beliefs.
It seems clear that this is a narrowly defined win for the plaintiffs and the implications beyond closely held corporations is unclear. How are Catholic colleges and Catholic television networks treated in relation to this decision? It would seem to me that they would also qualify for the exemption, but this is just my first pass. Public corporations are a question mark, but it seems clear that for-profit institutions are "persons" under the RFRA and thus Catholic colleges and other religiously affiliated institutions would be exempt.
What seems clear, further court action will be required to determine what entities qualify for this religious exemption and what are the limits of this protection. Today is a win, just how much of a win remains to be seen.
The Register will be providing breaking coverage of today's decision, as we and legal experts assess the ruling.
Update: On contnued reading, I think this might be less narrowly judged than at first glance. The opinion seems to be more sweeping in its scope and should provide protection from the mandate to almost all but publicly held corporations. This might be a bigger win that I first thought. Reading continued...