A Pretty Narrow Decision

That’s my first read on today’s opinion in the Hobby Lobby case: narrow and pretty much as expected. Indeed, Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court says as much (“our holding is very specific”). It’s a 5-4 decision; a 5-2 decision on one important point. Still, a win’s a win, and Hobby Lobby, its lawyers, and those who filed amicus briefs in its behalf have a right to be pleased–as do all those who value religious freedom.

Some first impressions:

  • The Court does not address Hobby Lobby’s First Amendment claims; Hobby Lobby wins on RFRA grounds. No surprise there.
  • In holding that a for-profit corporation can exercise a religion for RFRA purposes, the Court takes the route that Chief Justice Roberts suggested at oral argument. It expressly limits its holding to closely-held corporations like Hobby Lobby and declines to discuss whether large, publicly traded corporations also can exercise a religion for RFRA purposes. That, as lawyers say, is a question for another day. (Self-promotion alert: this is what I predicted). The vote was 5-2 here; two dissenters, Justices Breyer and Kagan, would not have reached the issue.
  • The Court makes clear its ruling does not mean it will necessarily rule the same way in other cases where employers seek relief under RFRA, for example, where employers object to covering immunizations. Different governmental interests could be involved in those cases, the Court says.
  • The Court goes out of its way to say that its holding would not allow employers to justify racial discrimination on religious grounds. It says nothing about other sorts of discrimination, however. Surely this is intentional. As everyone knows, a major lurking issue is whether RFRA allows employers to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, especially homosexuality. The Court obviously wishes to avoid any allusions to that issue–perhaps to keep Justice Kennedy on board. The dissent does raise the issue, though.
  • The qualifications in the Court’s opinion are obviously meant to answer the dissent’s “parade of horribles.” Seems a pretty good answer to me–but the dissenters are not impressed. The Court’s logic extends to publicly traded corporations, Justice Ginsburg writes, and there is little doubt, notwithstanding the Court’s reassurances,  that RFRA claims will “proliferate” in future. In particular, the dissent raises the issue of religiously-based objections to sexuality. As I say, the Court studiously avoids that issue.
  • In its least-restrictive means analysis, the Court notes that an accommodation of the sort the government has offered to certain religious non-profits would have achieved the government’s end in this case as well, and would have imposed less on Hobby Lobby’s religious exercise. That is, an alternative to the mandate is available. Is the Court hinting at what it thinks about the Little Sisters of the Poor case? I don’t think so; the Court went out of its way to reserve that issue. But the language here is a bit opaque and may cause trouble in future.
  • Not clear what the point of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence is, except to highlight that he sees this as a close case, to say nice things about the dissent, and to expound a little more about his view that religious liberty is about protecting people’s “dignity and … striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts.”

We’ll have further analysis here at CLR Forum as we digest the opinion a little more. But, bottom line: a narrow decision and a win for religious liberty.

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