This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014, on the (then recent) Burwell v Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, which ruled that owners of for-profit corporations could withhold certain healthcare benefits (i.e. contraceptives) if their owners had religious objections. I was reminded of this one because of Trump’s recent rule allowing federal contractors to discriminate based on religious views. While only tangential to the present issue, I thought it was a good explanation of the rationale behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and how one might argue around religious exemptions.
As I may or may not have mentioned before, my boyfriend has a law degree. So I get to hear a lot of lawyerly opinions on the recent Burwell vs Hobby Lobby decision, both from him and his friends. And they seem to contrast with the opinions I get from atheist blogs, where there’s lots of panicking about the consequences, but very little explanation of the mechanical details of the decision.
The Hobby Lobby decision was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law from the 90s. The RFRA says,
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.
Laws specifically targeted against religions are already unconstitutional, but the RFRA adds religious protection from neutral laws. For example, if a company bans hats among employees, that is a neutral rule that disproportionately affects certain minority religions which mandate wearing hats.