WASHINGTON, DC — Justice Anthony Kennedy thinks gay people are fabulous. All three of the Supreme Court’s most important gay rights decisions were written by Justice Kennedy. So advocates for birth control had a simple task today: convince Kennedy that allowing religious employers to exempt themselves from a federal law expanding birth control access would lead to all kinds of horrible consequences in future cases — including potentially allowing religious business owners to discriminate against gay people.
Kennedy, however, also hates abortion. Although Kennedy cast the key vote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey upholding what he called the “essential holding of Roe v. Wade,” he’s left no doubt that he cast that vote very grudgingly. Casey significantly rolled back the constitutional right to choose an abortion. And Kennedy hasn’t cast a single pro-choice vote in an abortion case in the last 22 years.
So Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the two companies claiming that they should be exempt from the birth control rules had an ace in their pocket as well. Their path to victory involved convincing Kennedy that their cases are really about abortion — and it looks like Kennedy convinced himself of that point on his own.
It was clear from the get go that the Court’s liberals understood that their best course involved highlighting the dangerous consequences of a victory for Hobby Lobby. Paul Clement, the de facto Solicitor General of the Republican Party who argued the case on Hobby Lobby’s behalf, barely uttered his first sentence before Justice Sonia Sotomayor cut him off to ask what other medical procedures religious employers could refuse to cover in their employee health plans. Justice Elena Kagan quickly joined the party. If Hobby Lobby can deny birth control coverage, Kagan asked, what about employers who object to vaccinations? Or blood transfusions?
When Clement tried to deflect this list, Kagan came armed with an even bigger one. What of religious employers who object to gender equality, or the minimum wage, or family medical leave, or child labor laws? If the Supreme Court agrees with Hobby Lobby’s brief, which argues that laws burdening a corporation’s purported religious faith must survive the “most demanding test known to constitutional law,” then there would be few laws corporations could not exempt themselves from following.
Clement’s argument time then took a number of detours, with the Court’s three women dominating the questioning. Justice Kagan pointed out that religious liberty cases have never applied the same strict constitutional rule applied in race cases. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered how the federal religious liberty law at issue in this case — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — could have passed almost unanimously if it lead to the deeply controversial results advocated by Clement. Justice Sotomayor wondered how it is possible for a corporation to exercise religion.
The justices also spent a good amount of time discussing whether Hobby Lobby faces any real burden at all, since they could always simply stop offering health benefits and pay a tax — a position first articulated in a blog post written by Professor Marty Lederman.
At the end of Clement’s first turn at the podium, Kennedy asked the question that will probably give most hope to Team Birth Control. What about the rights of employees who may be hurt by their employer’s decision not to follow the law? For the moment, it appeared that Kennedy was worried about the parade of horribles that could follow a decision for Hobby Lobby.
Indeed, not long after Solicitor General Don Verrilli took the podium to argue the government’s case, it appeared that he may ultimately emerge victorious. Clement spent much of his argument on his heels. The three women on the bench appeared quite confident in their questioning. Kennedy was silent for much of Verilli’s argument.
But then he made a statement that will likely doom the government’s case. “Your reasoning would permit” Congress to force corporations to pay for abortions, Kennedy told Verrilli. This was not the Anthony Kennedy that worried about conservatives imposing their anti-gay “animus” on others, this was the Anthony Kennedy that views abortion as a grave moral wrong. Shortly after Kennedy made this statement, Justice Kagan’s face dropped. It appeared that she’d just figured out that she would be joining a dissenting opinion.
It’s worth noting that Kennedy expressed a different concern than one offered shortly thereafter by Chief Justice John Roberts. Hobby Lobby objects to four forms of contraception on the mistaken ground that these contraceptive methods are actually forms of abortion — a brief filed by numerous medical organizations explains that they are not. Roberts, however, suggested that someone’s mere belief that something is an abortion is enough to trigger an religious exemption to federal law.
Kennedy did something different, he did not weigh in on the question of whether non-abortions can count as abortion — indeed, he seemed to understand the difference between birth control and abortion. Nevertheless, he looked at the government’s requirement to provide birth control coverage and envisioned a future law compelling Hobby Lobby to pay for actual abortions — just as he once gazed upon a requirement to buy health insurance and imagined the government forcing everyone to buy broccoli. In Justice Kennedy’s Courtroom, the government doesn’t have to defend the law it actually passed, it has to defend the worst law Kennedy can imagine them passing — even if that law would never make it through Congress.
Clement pounced on the opening Kennedy gave him the second he took the podium for his rebuttal argument. The government’s position, he claimed, goes straight to abortion and “that cannot be what Congress meant when it passed RFRA.” Kagan’s face grew even more worried.
As I left the Supreme Court building, I ran into one of the nation’s leading advocates for reproductive justice. We smiled at each other, and then I said “Kennedy thinks this is an abortion case. The government is going to lose.”
“That’s right,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s right.”