If you ask reasonably informed consumers of news media what the year’s big Supreme Court case was, most would probably say Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that case where “five white men” (in Harry Reid’s description) decided that corporations can deny women access to birth control. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, what was at stake in Hobby Lobby has nothing to do with the power of big business, the freedom to use any kind of legal contraceptive, or how to balance religious liberty against other constitutional considerations. Much like Citizens United (which struck down restrictions on corporate political speech without touching campaign contribution limits) and Shelby County (which struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act because it was based on obsolete voting data that didn’t reflect current realities as constitutionally required), Hobby Lobby is doomed to be misunderstood.
The case was actually a rather straightforward question of statutory interpretation regarding whether the government was justified in this particular case in overriding religious liberties. The Supreme Court evaluated that question and ruled 5-4 that closely held corporations can’t be forced to pay for all of their employees’ contraceptives if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. There was no constitutional decision, no expansion of corporate rights, and no weighing of religion versus the right to use birth control.
That’s it. Nobody has been denied access to contraceptives and there’s now more freedom for all Americans to live their lives how they want, without checking their conscience at the office door. The contraceptive mandate fell because it was a rights-busting government compulsion that lacked sufficient justification.
That the Hobby Lobby dissenters and their media chorus made so much noise over this case is evidence of a larger process whereby the government foments needless social clashes by expanding its control over areas of life we used to think of as being “public” yet not governmental. The government thus uses private voluntary institutions as agents in its social-engineering project. These are places that are beyond the intimacies of the home but still far removed from the state: churches, charities, social clubs, small businesses, and even “public” corporations (which are nevertheless part of the “private” sector).
Where Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated the civil society that proliferated in the young American republic, the Age of Obama has heralded an ever-growing administrative state that aims to standardize “the Life of Julia” from cradle to grave. Through an ever-growing list of mandates, regulations, and assorted other devices, the government is pushing aside the “little platoons” that made this country what it was. We can call this tide of national collectivism overtaking the presumptive primacy of individual liberty and voluntarism the “Hobbylobbification of America.”
For more on all this, read my recently published book – Religious Liberties for Corporations? Hobby Lobby, the Affordable Care Act, and the Constitution – where my co-author David Gans and I debate all sorts of interesting issues. Perhaps most curious is that I minimize the significance of the ruling or its precedential value, while David says it’s really, really big (and really, really bad). That’s an unusual inversion in Supreme Court commentary; typically the winning side trumpets its victory while the losers try to explain why the decision really doesn’t mean that much. (If you’re curious about any of this, come to our book forum/debate this Tuesday, or watch online.)