by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Alex Adrianson compiles for the Heritage Foundation’s “Insider Online” blog interesting observations about a major omission from the recent Supreme Court debate over the high-profile Hobby Lobby case.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act says government may impose a substantial burden on religious practice only if the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. Richard Epstein writes that in last week’s Hobby Lobby decision, neither the majority nor the dissenters on the Court adequately assessed the question of whether a compelling government interest was being served by the Department of Health and Human Services contraception mandate:
Unfortunately, Justice Alito simply assumes that the state has a compelling state interest in women’s healthcare, and jumps right to the question of whether the ACA adopts the “least restrictive means” toward that end. In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg insists, without opposition, that women’s health is a compelling state interest. Her argument is, however, wrong at every level. RFRA’s legislative history makes reference to two early Supreme Court cases, Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), which set a high bar against any claim of a compelling state interest. For example, Sherbert makes explicit reference to NAACP v. Button (1963) in which Justice Brennan resorted to a tough compelling state interest test to protect the NAACP against Virginia’s race neutral anti-solicitation law. RFRA carries that tough standard over to cases of religious liberty.
A more detailed analysis of the history of health and safety regulations confirms this interpretation. Today, by common consent, constitutional law cannot be used to strike down the ACA’s massive interference with freedom of contract. Before the New Deal, however, the applicable standard provided that the constitutional protection of freedom of contract yielded to federal or state regulation that used reasonable means to advance the health and safety of employees under the government’s residual police power. But not one decision during that period ever concluded that the police power extended to protecting personal healthcare unrelated to the workplace activities. Thus, states could pass a worker’s compensation law to deal with job-related injuries, or impose restrictions on exposure levels dangerous to female reproduction. But they could not require any employer to supply its female (or male) employees with a full set of healthcare services unrelated to their job. Only the constitutional repudiation of the pre-New Deal cases on liberty of contract made the ACA possible, for its limitations on contractual freedom are tested under the toothless rational basis standard.
Rational basis has no place under the RFRA, which requires the state to show that the supposed compelling interest in women’s healthcare justifies a statutory mandate that disrupts all preexisting practices whereby firms did not supply the mandated contraceptive services. But women’s healthcare is no more a compelling interest than men’s healthcare. The elaborate ACA legislative findings that uninsured women need healthcare fail miserably to explain the employer’s duty to subsidize anyone’s healthcare.