I wish people would quit talking about this case in terms of “corporate rights” and “corporate personhood” and the like. That’s a red herring. The decision prominently mentions the legal relevance of the fact that Hobby Lobby (and the other plaintiffs) are “closely held corporations” — that is, owned by a small number of shareholders rather than being publicly traded companies — and the decision was rationalized (I won’t dignify it with the word “justified”) on the basis that it protects the religious liberty OF THOSE INDIVIDUAL PERSONS. Yes, those persons own a company, but the rights at stake were the rights of the owners as persons, and religious rights were not in any way imputed to any corporation.
Here’s how the Hobby Lobby case reasoning works: The owners of Hobby Lobby claim, based on the language of the (misleadingly named, unnecessary, and poorly written) Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that the ACA’s requirement that all employers (above a certain size) pay some of the costs of comprehensive health coverage “substantially burdens” their religious liberty. How, exactly? Because comprehensive health insurance coverage includes contraception, and they don’t like contraception — because religion.
Now surely the owners of Hobby Lobby et al have a right to that religious opinion as individual people, and I’ll readily grant that the government would be unduly burdening their religious liberty if it were forcing them to use or purchase contraception. But it’s not quite so obvious that there is any encroachment on religious liberty in forcing them to pay for comprehensive health coverage for their employees. In fact, it’s the opposite of obvious. It’s downright obscure why anyone would think so.
How is paying for their employees’ insurance coverage — which employees may or may not use to acquire contraception — any different from paying their employees’ salaries, which employees also may or may not use to acquire contraception (or any of a number of other things that their employers might find disagreeable for religious reasons)? Yes, there is a purely practical difference that contraception can be expensive, but surely there is no difference in principle. To claim that a burden has been imposed on one’s liberty logically requires that one actually has some genuine right at stake — and employers have no legal or moral right to restrict, coerce, or influence in any way the private medical decisions of their employees any more than they have a right to tell their employees how to spend their paychecks. The claim that the employers in this case have any religious liberty that is being burdened in any way, “substantial” or not, is flatly ludicrous. (But, I repeat, that claim is not based on any notion that corporations as legal persons now have religious freedom to go along with their (mistakenly, foolishly, unjustifiably granted) freedom of speech.)
If anything, the religious liberty of *employees* is very substantially burdened by this decision, because it allows employers to arbitrarily limit employees’ access to health care and thereby impose their own private religious convictions on employees who may not (and probably do not) share them. But the primary burden here is on employees’ right to equality before the law: All people employed at companies above a certain size have a right to an employer-subsidized comprehensive insurance plan under the ACA — except now they don’t, if they have the misfortune of being employed by a privately-owned company whose owners claim they have a religious aversion to some perfectly ordinary health care option which comprehensive insurance plans are required to provide by law. This result is discriminatory on the face of it, even without the additional discrimination that MEN’S health care never seems to be an issue for anyone’s religious convictions.
For my part, I’m convinced that any time religious liberty clashes with equality before the law, the latter is a more fundamental moral and constitutional principle that ought to prevail. (Exceptions welcome, but I can’t think of any. And this is really why I think the RFRA is constitutionally unsound law, because it subordinates other constitutionally-guaranteed liberties to religious liberty.) But never mind that, because there is no plausible argument to be made that the comprehensive insurance coverage requirement of the ACA (which includes contraception, simply because it IS basic health care) imposes a “substantial burden” on the religious liberty of employers: Employers simply do not have any right — based in religious liberty or any other constitutional or legal principle — to make health care decisions (or any other personal or financial decisions) for their employees, so that right cannot be encroached on by the ACA or any other law.
So why did the five-MAN majority of the SCOTUS offer downright silly legal rationalizations in support of the rationally and legally insupportable claim that employers have some religious liberty that is substantially burdened by being required to provide comprehensive insurance coverage (including icky, icky contraceptive care) to employees? Because five white Catholic men are ideologically predisposed to dislike women in general and contraception in particular. And because those same men are willing tools of the plutocracy who always show a clear preference for expanding the power of employers over the protecting the rights of employees.