Hobby Lobby Ruling a Narrow Win for Freedom

Today’s much anticipated Supreme Court decision on the case of Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. was expected to have broad implications for the application of the Affordable Care Act vis a vis the Constitution. Can the government dictate what kinds of insurance employers are required to provide, or should individuals be free to enter into any contracts they choose?

Now that the 5-4 decision has been made public, there is both cause for celebration, and grave disappointment among those of us who were hoping for a broad ruling in favor of individual liberty.

Justices Alito, Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, and Thomas joined in the opinion that the federal government could not force Hobby Lobby to pay for contraception coverage for its employees. While this is the correct ruling, it largely comes for the wrong reasons and misses a broader point that would have set an important precedent for future cases.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito, chose to attack the problem from the standpoint of an existing law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, rather than attack the root of the issue on a constitutional basis. The core issue is not, in fact, one of religious freedom, but falls under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of association, and by extension the freedom to enter into voluntary contracts.

Having already made its decision on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, the Court saw no need to further pursue these kind of constitutional arguments. At the conclusion of his opinion, Justice Alito wrote: “The contraceptive mandate, as applied to closely held corporations, violates RFRA. Our decision on that statutory question makes it unnecessary to reach the First Amendment claim.”

It is not exactly surprising that the Court would refrain from issuing a broader ruling that would have had extensive implications for other federal laws, but it is disappointing. The freedom of contract is abridged in innumerable ways by federal laws, from the minimum wage, to labor union protections, to the other mandates within the Affordable Care Act. It is high time that we evaluate in detail whether individuals should be allowed to negotiate with one another within the context of a private business arrangement, or if the government must insert itself into these arrangements when it is not wanted.

The current ruling narrowly exempts certain kinds of organizations from certain kinds of mandates, but it remains unclear why these sorts of protections should not be extended equally to all organizations, as well as to private citizens acting in their capacity as employees or entrepreneurs.

To be sure, the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case is a victory for freedom, but it is a small one that will have little practical application. There remains far more devastating mandates within ObamaCare’s thousands of pages of regulations that need to be stricken down as well. For now, we will have to content ourselves with these sorts of piecemeal rulings that chip into the government’s authority one small bite at a time.