Reflections on the Hobby Lobby Oral Argument: On the Establishment Clause Claim

It is of course always difficult to predict how the Court will rule on any issue, and this is certainly true in the Hobby Lobby case. From my read of the transcript of the oral argument, the least restrictive means analysis stole the show. There sure was a lot of discussion about the accommodation to religious nonprofits as a less restrictive means than what the administrative agency had decided on for for-profits. Justice Kennedy asked repeatedly about the issue of regulatory, as opposed to legislative, exemptions as a Free Exercise Clause and RFRA problem. See, e.g. 56 (“Now what–what kind of constitutional structure do we have if the Congress can give an agency the power to grant or not grant a religious exemption based on what the agency determined?”).

On another matter, though, there was greater clarity in the argument. The government rejected the specific claim that an exemption in this case would violate the Establishment Clause. Here is the colloquy:

Justice Alito: Well is it your argument that providing the accommodation that’s requested here would violate the Establishment Clause

General Verrilli: It’s not our argument that it would violate the Establishment Clause. But it is our argument that you–in any RFRA case, including this one, you have to consider the impact on third parties, because otherwise, you will be skating on thin constitutional ice.

43. I am not quite sure what this means. But what it seems to mean is that, first, the government takes the position that this exemption, if granted, would not violate the Establishment Clause. And second, it seems to mean that RFRA itself, properly interpreted and applied, incorporates within itself Establishment Clause limits that relate to third party interests. That’s the claim I have made here. It is also the claim that this amicus brief makes. It also reflects the language in Cutter v. Wilkinson. It is a claim about the interpretation of a statute. It is not a claim that the statute violates the Establishment Clause if it violates a particular externally imposed threshold that is not spelled out in the statute itself. Solicitor General Verrilli went on to say that whatever third party interests are contemplated by RFRA are subsumed within the compelling government interest analysis right within RFRA: “[C]ertainly compelling interest analysis certainly does require consideration of the interests of third parties.” 44

Of course, that the government disavows a claim does not mean that the Court can’t go retrieve it on its own. But it was really only Justice Ginsburg who said anything at all about the Establishment Clause, and what she said seems also to be consistent with the point that RFRA (like RLUIPA) incorporates certain Establishment Clause limits. Justice Kennedy asked Attorney Clement how he “would suggest that we think about the position and the rights of the–of the employees[.]” Justice Kennedy then remarked that “the employees are in a position where the government, through its healthcare plans is…allowing the employer to put the employee in a disadvantageous position. The employee may not agree with these religious–religious beliefs of the employer. Does the religious beliefs just trump?” 33

After a response from Mr. Clement, here’s what Justice Ginsburg said:

But, Mr. Clement, you made the analogy to RLUIPA. And the one thing that has not been mentioned up till now is the Establishment Clause. The Court was very clear when it came to RLUIPA, which you said is similar to RFRA, that the accommodation must be measured so it doesn’t override other significant interests. And that was true of Sherbert and that was true of Yoder. The–and the Cutter case, and this Court made it very clear, that the accommodation has to be balanced and you have to take into account other significant interests.

34. Later in the discussion, Justice Kagan referred specifically to the “tangible harm[]” that women will suffer who don’t get the benefit of the statute. But neither Justice Kagan nor Justice Kennedy specifically talked about the Establishment Clause. And the discussion of tangible harms on third parties then turned toward the issue of alternative means of accommodating those interests without burdening the religious objector.

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