Democratic Delaware Sen. Chris Coons pivoted fast after Judge Neil Gorsuch explained a key element of the contentious Hobby Lobby ruling during Tuesday’s hearing for his nomination to the Supreme Court.
The case, which Gorsuch heard as an appeals judge and was later heard by the Supreme Court, asked if for-profit corporations could bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In this instance, the owners of Hobby Lobby said they had a religious objection to providing certain forms of contraception to their employees.
Gorsuch ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, attracting criticism from Coons.
Coons asked Gorsuch why he ruled in favor of allowing for-profit corporations to bring claims under the RFRA.
Gorsuch responded that the law as drafted did not distinguish between natural persons and corporations, and that corporate personhood was a well-established principle of law. He further explained that the government conceded in that case that a non-profit corporation could bring a RFRA claim.
Coons rebutted that it was a “big leap” to take those facts and apply them to for-profit corporations.
“The position you’re advocating is a fine position,” Gorsuch responded. “It’s a respectable position. It’s a good position. It was adopted by precisely two justices of the Supreme Court.”
Gorsuch was referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case. Two of the four dissenters in the case, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, declined to join the portion of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion, which held for-profit corporations or their owners cannot bring claims under the RFRA. Only Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor have taken the position RFRA doesn’t apply to corporate entities.
Coons then pivoted away from Hobby Lobby and asked generally about judicial deference to the beliefs of religious objectors.
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