Looked at from a distance, it may seem as if the Supreme Court struck a mighty blow in defense of religious liberty in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which it decided this week.
Yes, the court ruled that a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could apply to "closely held" corporations, and under its terms the federal government could not force the Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby to provide insurance coverage for certain drugs and devices that violate the family's religious beliefs.
But looked at more closely, the case shows how profoundly the Supreme Court has distorted our Constitution and how tenuous is our current hold on the most fundamental of all freedoms -- the freedom of conscience.
At issue in Hobby Lobby was whether the Department of Health and Human Services could enforce against family-owned corporations an Obamacare regulation that required the corporations to buy health insurance for their employees that cover drugs and devices that can kill human beings by preventing them, as embryos, from implanting in their mothers' wombs.
The court voted 5 to 4 that HHS could not enforce this regulation against the corporations not because that would violate the owners' First Amendment rights to the free exercise of their religion -- which tells them not to cooperate in killing humans -- but because the regulation does not meet all the requirements set up by Religious Freedom Restoration Act for when the government can violate the free exercise of religion.
The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
RFRA says Congress can make laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion for certain people in certain situations.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court's majority opinion in Hobby Lobby. In it, he explains that RFRA "prohibits the federal government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest."
Joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy (who filed a concurring opinion), Alito argued that: 1)
Forcing the employers in this case to provide insurance coverage for certain drugs and devices did indeed substantially burden their exercise of religion, 2) that the government did indeed have a compelling interest for forcing these employers to violate their religious beliefs, but 3) that the particular means the government used to advance this compelling interest force was not the least restrictive one available.