On Monday the Supreme Court decided its most anticipated case of the year. According to a sharply divided 5-4 court, the government cannot compel a closely-held corporation to provide contraceptive coverage as part of its Affordable Care Act-mandated employee insurance plans.
This was the expected result: four conservatives in favor, four liberals against, and Justice Kennedy concurring in the middle. Yet while many are calling the ruling a victory for conservatives and a loss for women’s (and by extension, LGBT) rights, Justice Alito’s majority opinion is actually far more limited than many had expected. Here’s why.
First, the opinion is limited to closely-held corporations. This distinction makes sense. An individual’s beliefs may be attributed to a family-owned business much more reasonably than to a large corporation. Hobby Lobby, the named plaintiff in the case, is indeed large: it has over 500 stores, and over 13,000 employees. But it is family-owned, and the owners’ devout Christian faith is evident throughout the company -- including its advertising, product choices and employment policies.
Of course, progressives should object to any attribution of religious belief to a for-profit business. It’s bad enough that corporations are people -- now they are people with consciences. But the ship has already sailed on this question. As Justice Alito noted at oral argument, corporations are “persons” as defined in numerous federal laws. That would seem to include the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which set a high standard for any government action that affects religious exercise, and is at issue in this case. Companies having religious beliefs may not make much sense, but the Supreme Court is not addressing this question de novo; there are already laws on the books.
To be sure, in Hobby Lobby Justice Alito defended this proposition, writing that “a corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends.” Well, yes and no -- it also has its own legal status, liabilities, and interests. But it is indisputably a “person” under other laws, and now under RFRA as well.