Religious Liberty Wins the Day

The Hobby Lobby decision is reassuring, but the reach of the government is still too long.

Anti-abortion advocates cheer in front of the Supreme Court after the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. was announced Monday, June 30, 2014, in Washington, D.C. The high court ruled 5-4 that requiring some companies to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom.

Anti-abortion advocates cheer in front of the Supreme Court after the Hobby Lobby decision.

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A divided U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the doctrine of religious liberty Monday, holding that “closely-held corporations” could not be forced to offer contraceptive devices as part of their employee’s health plans if such a mandate was in conflict with the moral compass of the owners.

Opponents of Obamacare are cheering the decision. University of Missouri law professor Joshua Hawley, who is “of counsel” to the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, called the ruling “An enormous victory for personal freedom in America. This decision confirms that people of conscience are welcome in business and that all Americans have the right to follow their moral and social convictions in every walk of life. The right to form one’s own beliefs and live them out peaceably is at the heart of constitutional liberty. That liberty has won out today.”

Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the United States Senate, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s decision “Makes clear that the Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear. Obamacare is the single worst piece of legislation to pass in the last 50 years, and I was glad to see the Supreme Court agree that this particular Obamacare mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

[READ: Was the Supreme Court Right to Rule in Favor of Hobby Lobby?]

House Speaker John Boehner called the ruling “A victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government objectives. The mandate overturned today would have required for-profit companies to choose between violating their constitutionally-protected faith or paying crippling fines, which would have forced them to lay off employees or close their doors.”

Somehow, it all seems a bit underwhelming and a real anticlimax. The idea of religious liberty has been upheld, narrowly, based on a statute rather than on essential First Amendment grounds. Indeed, Boehner was one of the few who had it right in calling to mind that Obamacare “remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy. We must repeal it and enact better solutions that start with lowering Americans' health care costs.”

It may be a minority view, but the narrowness of the decision alongside dissents arguing that access to free birth control and sterilization was something of an entitlement do not amount to a stunning rebuke of government overreach. Perhaps we in America only do such things incrementally, laying down markers and slowly walking things back from a point of excess over a period of years, with respect for the rule of law taking precedence over the momentary passions of men and women. Still, the decision could have, and in my judgment should have, been stronger.

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The country has clearly reached the point where it is acceptable – even smart – to argue that because the government pays for something, such as health care, or mandates things like the distribution of free birth control, it automatically acquires a compelling interest in how those programs are administered that trumps our personal liberties and our individual right of conscience. As has been said many times and in many different ways, a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.

The Hobby Lobby decision may provide a temporary respite from the ongoing encroachment of government into every sector of our lives under the current administration, or it may just be a bump in the road that the president and his allies will honor more in the breach than the observance. Time will tell but, as a matter of first principles, we are too far down a road we shouldn’t be on to find relief through any means other than a sharp U-Turn.