What To Look For in the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby Ruling

hobby lobby
Attorney for Hobby Lobby Lori Windham stands on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington Larry Downing/Reuters

Are corporations people? Can they hold religious beliefs? If so, can they refuse to offer contraception coverage because of those beliefs? And if that is the case, what other federal laws can corporations ignore?

We’ll find out Monday at 10 a.m., when the Supreme Court hands down its decision in the most momentous case of the year so far.

Known as Hobby Lobby, the case arose when the religiously inclined owners of two companies objected to the requirement in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act that insurance plans must cover a full suite of contraception coverage. The Greens, a Southern Baptist family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft stores chain, and the Mennonite Hahn family, which owns the Conestoga Wood Specialties cabinet-making business in Pennsylvania, argue that being forced to cover contraceptives they object to on religious grounds violates their religious liberty.

The two families argue that their businesses should be entitled to protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which until now has applied only to individuals. If the court finds that RFRA does indeed protect even some businesses, it would be another step down the contentious road toward “corporate personhood” that the court has increasingly embraced in recent years. This legal formulation often argued by conservatives caused GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to seem overly allied to big business when he declared “Corporations are people, my friend” during the 2012 election.

It’s like corporate personhood “on steroids,” constitutional law expert Adam Winkler explained to Newsweek last year. “Not only are corporations people, but they are devout people who pray and have their own religious beliefs.”

If the court decides that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are protected under RFRA, it must then decide whether the government is imposing a "substantial burden" on the companies. If the court decides there is a significant burden, it must then decide whether the government has a "compelling interest" to impose that burden.

The federal government has defended the so-called “contraception mandate” by emphasizing the rights of women employees to medical care. My opponents "leave third-party employees entirely out of the equation," Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said during oral arguments in March.

There’s also the chance that the Supreme Court could duck some of the tougher questions by deciding that the “contraception mandate” is actually a tax -- the exact out the majority used two years ago when the court upheld Obamacare’s individual mandate. It’s an argument that the liberal justices pushed at oral arguments. We’ll know Monday if either Justice Anthony Kennedy or Chief Justice John Roberts -- considered the two persuadable conservatives on the Hobby Lobby case -- took the bait.

But courtwatchers are putting their money on a win for Hobby Lobby. During oral arguments, the question of whether a law could require abortion coverage came up, and Kennedy and Roberts both seemed worried by the idea. In defending the mandate, the government also struggled during oral arguments to prove that the contraception mandate is the best way to ensure women have access to birth control -- couldn’t they find a way to provide coverage that doesn’t interfere with religious liberty, they asked?

If Hobby Lobby and Conestoga win, the scope of the ruling will determine the fallout. Can any corporation claim a religious objection to covering contraception? What about a religious objection to vaccines? Or minimum-wage laws? Can only family-held corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga obtain religious exemptions from the law?

That’s why liberals are worried about more than the future of the contraception mandate. As liberal Justice Elena Kagan put it during oral arguments, courts' "hands would be bound" in future challenges to federal laws on religious grounds.

Finally, amidst all the coverage of Hobby Lobby, the press is likely to miss another expected Monday ruling in Harris v. Quinn. Despite its low profile, this case could be momentous, with the future of public-sector unions hanging in the balance.

At issue is the longstanding practice of public-sector unions collecting dues from non-union members, since even non-union employees benefit from union negotiations. These dues go only to the union's bargaining efforts and are not used for political activities. Still, home care providers in Illinois are challenging the rule as a violation of their First Amendment speech rights. A loss for unions could cut their funding to crippling levels, and the Supreme Court is not exactly union-friendly these days.

If the union wins, it will likely be the doing of an unlikely ally in conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who in a 1991 case argued that workers who benefit from union negotiations should not be "free riders." The unions are likely praying that he hasn't changed his mind.

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