That’s the central message in a Supreme Court ruling Monday that found the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) cannot be used to force a privately held corporation to act against the religious beliefs of its owners.
The high court decided that the 2010 health-care law violates religious liberty by demanding such owners pay for contraceptive insurance that they regard as immoral. Government must not force the employers to act against their faith, the court found, because that would be the same as judging their religious views to be “flawed.”
The case focused on insurance coverage for a few types of birth control methods that the Obama administration admits may result in the destruction of an embryo. Two families that run private corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, objected to participating in such coverage, based on a belief that life begins at conception.
The court did not disagree that government has a compelling interest in helping women in their reproductive choices. But that interest can be met in less restrictive ways than placing a substantial burden on the religious expression of individuals, even those who own a privately held corporation. Obamacare already imposes no contraceptive mandate on religious nonprofit groups and churches. (The court noted that a corporation can serve “any lawful purpose,” not just making profits for owners.)
The task now for President Obama and Congress is to make sure women working in such corporations are themselves not burdened in obtaining insurance for their health needs. Lifting the burden on some employers in the name of religious liberty should not restrict the liberty of others. Lawmakers may need to expand Title X of the Public Health Service Act, which currently provides limited funding for family planning. In this way, female workers at companies exempt from the mandate will not feel their employer’s beliefs are being imposed on them
The ruling upholds a 1993 law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sets a high standard for the protection of religious expression, not only beliefs. The decision is only one test of this law’s attempt to balance secular and religious interests in a complex society grown accustomed to many government programs.
The Supreme Court acknowledges the difficulty of achieving such a balance. This ruling, the court states, applies only to the contraceptive mandate. Still it lays down a valuable principle that government has alternatives when it seeks to impose itself on the free exercise of religion. Government can do much good, but first it must do no harm to either the beliefs or the actions of those who, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in this ruling, “believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law.”