The decision announced today in the Hobby Lobby case, while providing immediate relief to Hobby Lobby and the other plaintiffs, contains language which leaves the implications of this decision for Thomas Aquinas College unclear.
In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled narrowly that “as applied to closely held corporations, the HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate RFRA.” In the same decision the majority provided guidance to the government as to how it might achieve its desired goal of guaranteeing cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion. It suggested that the government itself could assume the cost of providing the contraceptives or that it could simply extend to closely held for-profit corporations with religious objections the accommodation that has already been established for non-profit organizations with those objections.
While this suggestion might indicate the Court’s approval of the HHS accommodation being challenged by the College, the Court also said that it “does not decide today whether an approach of [this] type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.” In another comment potentially favorable to the College, the Court stated that “RFRA was designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty,” and noted that plaintiffs’ beliefs in the Hobby Lobby case “implicate a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another.” This question, of course, goes right to the heart of the College’s, and others’, religious objection to the HHS accommodation.
Finally, in another hopeful comment, one which seems to leave religious organizations free to judge for themselves what their religious commitments entail, the Court chastised the government for “arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question,” saying that “HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed,” a step which, “for good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take.”
Attorneys for the College today filed a letter with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where the College is currently awaiting a decision, stating that “the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. strongly supports [the College’s] RFRA challenge.” The letter points out that “the decision confirms that the Mandate substantially burdens Appellants’ exercise of religion … and leaves undisturbed this Court’s holding that the Mandate does not advance a compelling governmental interest, and it confirms that the Mandate is not the least-restrictive means of ensuring that women receive free contraception.”
In more good news for the College, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals today issued an injunction pending appeal to EWTN in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Hobby Lobby. Judge Pryor’s concurring opinion (PDF) in that ruling is a powerful articulation of the moral arguments in our own case as well as in EWTN’s.