Hobby Lobby Implications and Misconceptions

This past June, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the owner of a closely held private company could be forced to provide types of birth control that violate his or her religious beliefs. This was a result of the Affordable Care Act that mandated certain types of coverage in employer-provided health plans. According to USA Today, the birth control methods required by the Health Resources and Service Administration were the twenty approved by the Food and Drug Administration—four of which prevent fertilized eggs from implanting and are otherwise known as abortifacients. 1 The Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, which already provided several types of birth control on the health plan prior to the act’s passage, sued the federal government on the grounds that covering these four types of abortifacients violated their religious beliefs. The Greens opposed any device or chemical that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting because of their belief that life begins at conception. 2 In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, a 5-4 majority sided with the Green family, citing that their free exercise of religion was substantially burdened by requiring them to pay for the four abortifacients. Following this ruling, there was outrage throughout the media and public because many people felt that it enabled employers to intrude into the personal health care decisions of their female employees. However, the ruling was in fact a defense of an individual’s religious liberty that took into account the laws in question and applied them in defense of an individual’s closely held religious beliefs.

Before examining the actual legal impacts of the decision, let’s first address some misconceptions that have come up in the media. First and foremost, this decision does not mean that any company can refuse to cover contraceptives based on their religious beliefs. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg claimed that this decision would result in companies having the ability to “opt out of any law they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” 3 Justice Kennedy dismissed this criticism by pointing out that the law does not have “the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent.” 4 This is due in part to the limits placed on the types of companies eligible for an exemption. Publicly held companies such as Walmart, Target, Macy’s, or McDonald’s cannot even apply this precedent simply based on the fact that they don’t have a defined set of owners. More importantly, Hobby Lobby was eligible for exemption because it is a privately held company that has from its founding exhibited explicit religious beliefs. So a privately held company cannot suddenly espouse new found religious values in order to save money on contraceptive-related costs. Despite the controversy surrounding it, this precedent protects individuals that own a private company from laws that force them to fund what they firmly believe to be immoral practices.

Another misunderstanding that must be addressed is that Hobby Lobby is not opposed to covering contraceptives to its female employees, for they currently cover sixteen types. What they are opposed to is covering abortifacients, drugs that induce immediate abortion by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting. Hobby Lobby already provides its employees with contraceptive alternatives to the use of these four abortifacients. The Green family’s opposition was not to contraception itself, but rather to funding devices or medication that would stop the natural development process of a human zygote. The Greens’ main interest was to defend themselves from coercion by the government to pay for something they consider to be morally reprehensible. The case goes beyond whether a woman has the right to these abortifacients or not; the question is if the government has the right to breach the conscience of her employer. When the government forces one to act against one’s religious belief, it infringes on what many consider to be at the core of their identity. By putting one’s religious belief in conflict with the law, the government creates an undesirable ultimatum: one must either choose to stand by one’s belief and face punishment from the government or relent and suffer from a crisis of conscience.

This is where the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in 1993, comes into play. The act’s purpose was to prevent laws that would substantially burden an individual’s free exercise of religion. Despite the media attention given to the Hobby Lobby case, few criticisms address this piece of legislation, which is pivotal to understanding why Hobby Lobby appealed their case not under First Amendment grounds, but under the RFRA. The main question that had to be addressed by the Supreme Court was whether the provision of abortifacients in fact represented a substantial burden for the owners of Hobby Lobby. The RFRA clause in dispute is “governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” Justice Samuel Alito writes in the majority decision, “Hobby Lobby’s statement of purpose commits the Greens to ‘honoring the Lord in all [they] do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.’” 5 This establishes that within its founding document their company had explicitly held religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby has brought these beliefs to the forefront of their business model. They are closed on Sundays at the expense of their profits because they believe their employees should have a day of rest to spend time with their families, and in worship if they so choose.

The majority concurs with Justice Alito that these four abortifacients are a substantial burden upon the Green family. This alone is not enough to grant Hobby Lobby an exemption, for under the RFRA, one must also consider whether the government has a compelling interest to require the Greens to provide these four abortifacients despite the substantial burden upon them. The compelling interest clause is crucial to the functionality of the law. For example, if a family owned a company that refused to cover blood transfusions based on their religious beliefs, the government can require them to do so under the compelling interest to protect an individual’s life. In the Hobby Lobby case, the five justices in the majority agreed that the government did not have a compelling interest in mandating coverage of these four abortifacients, given the fact that Hobby Lobby already offered contraceptive alternatives to its employees.

The compelling interest clause is often overlooked, which is why many people, including Justice Ginsburg, make the argument that under this decision any employer could claim a particular medical procedure violated its religious beliefs. Alito addresses this concern by concluding “Congress, in enacting RFRA, took the position that ‘the compelling interest test as set forth in prior Federal court rulings is a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.’” 6 The RFRA was not meant as a way for an individual to impose their religious beliefs on another, but as a means to strike a balance between the common good and the religious rights of individuals. A correct balance of the two fosters good intentions in individuals who come to the public square, which is vital for the proper development of civic and social life in the United States. The RFRA was enacted as a means by which one can judge the sincerity of an individual’s belief, then determine whether a law provides a substantial burden on this belief, and finally if the government has a compelling interest to nevertheless impose its will.

Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby undoubtedly polarized the political world, yet much of the controversy comes from misinformation. The decision was reached by applying the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to the case of the Green family, rather than the First Amendment. Under the RFRA, there was a strong case that Health Resources and Administration Services overstepped its bounds in not providing Hobby Lobby with a waiver to the contraception mandate. The RFRA fulfilled its purpose by preventing the Green family from going against their personal religious beliefs. Those who believe that it is ethically wrong to exempt companies from providing abortifacients should aim at repealing the RFRA. But those of us who believe that defending the religious liberty of the individual against the government is vital to our republic find comfort in this ruling, for it protects our freedom from government coercion. As for the Green family, they can continue to run their business by the Christian principles that they hold dear, without federal intrusion and with a clear conscience.



  1. Wolf, Richard. “Justices Rule for Hobby Lobby on Contraception Mandate.” USA Today. June 30, 2014
  2. Supreme Court majority opinion: Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 134 (2013)
  3. Supreme Court dissenting opinion: Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 134 (2013)
  4. Supreme Court majority opinion: Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 134 (2013)
  5. Supreme Court majority opinion: Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 134 (2013)
  6. Supreme Court dissenting opinion: Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. 134 (2013)

Photo by Lilian Chow.

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