The Supreme Court’s June 30 decision, which protects Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties from having to pay for possible abortion-causing drugs in company health plans, was a necessary win for religious freedom. The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Alito, relies on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) to reach its conclusion that religious freedom trumps the government interest in this instance.
Many Christians are already asking: “Well, if religious freedom can trump a government law, then could wedding vendors refuse to participate in same-sex weddings on religious grounds?”
In several cases over the past few years involving Christian photographers, bakers, and florists, state courts and civil rights commissions have said “no.”
Does Hobby Lobby change things?
While there is no “yes” or “no” response to that from the ruling, let me answer the question this way: It can change things, and ought to. Here are the takeaways from the Hobby Lobby decision that point to a new resolution of the wedding vendor issue:
- The decision is based on the federal RFRA, which technically doesn’t apply to state laws that affect wedding vendors. However, 19 states have passed their own RFRAs, and the courts in those states (not to mention wedding vendors) could benefit by taking to heart the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Hobby Lobby.
- Justice Alito’s opinion specifically addresses arguments that the Court is opening up a Pandora’s Box of endless discrimination in the name of religion. He emphasizes that RFRA doesn’t allow a blanket exemption for businesses to discriminate using religious reasons as an excuse. But, importantly, he didn’t consider Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to be “discriminating” against women by refusing to pay for 4 possible abortion-causing drugs and devices – especially when they already provide 16 other government-mandated forms of contraception.
Likewise, I would argue, wedding vendors who provide goods and services to homosexuals except for weddings are not engaged in “discrimination.” Courts and commissions who think otherwise need to take a second look at this issue.
- Justice Alito also emphasized that RFRA was intended by Congress to provide “sensible balancing” between religious freedom and government interests. Government should not win every case.
- The opinion makes clear that there is no hierarchy of religious rights, for instance that churches get more freedom than non-profits, and business owners get none at all. In other words, wedding vendors don’t forfeit their religious rights by starting a business.
There are plenty of wedding vendors who will gladly provide goods or services for same-sex ceremonies. The “sensible balance” of RFRA as applied by the Hobby Lobby decision suggests that there is room for conscientious objectors and the government should not punish them.
Bruce Hausknecht, J.D., is Focus on the Family’s judicial analyst.