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July 1, 2014

Religious Freedom Act Key to Hobby Lobby Ruling

But Constitutional Amendments Still Needed

The United States Supreme Court affirmed Monday in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that family businesses cannot be forced to pay for contraceptives that would kill an unborn child.

In its 5–4 ruling, the Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) protected a corporation’s free exercise of religion. It affirmed that the plaintiffs, who were for-profit companies, were “persons” under the RFRA’s definition, and could therefore rely on the RFRA’s legal protections. Based on this, the Court held that the plaintiffs could not be forced to pay for contraceptives that violated the corporate owners’ religious convictions.

“Major Victory”

Supporters of religious liberty praised the Hobby Lobby ruling. “The Supreme Court has given us a major victory for religious freedom,” said Michael Farris, Chairman of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. Farris said the Hobby Lobby ruling saved Americans from having to violate their beliefs “in order to own their own business or buy health insurance.”

Farris gave credit for this legal victory to the RFRA. “The Supreme Court gutted religious liberty in Employment Division v. Smith,” he said. “RFRA was a congressional rescue mission to save that liberty. And I’m glad to say that the law did what it was designed to do.”

Agreeing on Liberty

Farris was part of the the broad-based coalition that came together in 1990 to draft the RFRA, and he served as chairman of the drafting committee that wrote the bill’s language. Commenting on the coalition’s diversity—it included the Baptist Joint Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the ACLU, and People for the American Way, among many others—Farris recalled, “We worked in harmony because we all agreed that religious liberty is, and should be, a fundamental right. That’s something that every American can agree on.”

In his majority opinion for the Court on Hobby Lobby, Justice Samuel Alito explicitly rejected the argument that corporations “cannot exercise religion.” Instead, he wrote, a corporation “is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends,” and that when rights are extended to corporations, “the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”

The Court also rejected the government’s claim that for-profit corporations were not considered persons. Justice Alito noted that the Court had already entertained RFRA and free exercise claims brought by nonprofit corporations. He also noted that the government itself had admitted that nonprofit corporations could be persons under RFRA. “No known understanding of the term ‘person’ includes some but not all corporations,” he concluded.

Reason for Concern

Despite yesterday’s victory, Farris remains concerned about ongoing threats to religious liberty. “Religious freedom used to be a robust constitutionally protected freedom,” he said. “But if we want to keep that robust freedom, we have to ensure that we have well-written laws, and we have to limit these abuses of power by the federal government.”

The best way to limit these abuses, Farris believes, is to pass much-needed constitutional amendments. In particular, he wants to see a parental rights amendment, which would establish parents’ rights to raise and teach their children as a fundamental right. This amendment would block government overreach and would free parents to pursue the best path for their children.

“Here is the bottom line,” Farris said. “Religious liberty is one of the pillars of homeschooling freedom. Hobby Lobby shows us that we can stand together to protect that liberty. We need to create good, smart laws that block the government’s abuses of power. If we can do that, then we can keep religious liberty alive and well for our kids and our grandkids.”

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