The common theme in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions is a profoundly American one — that individuals are more important than the collective, that rights must be protected, unless there are clear and urgent reasons to infringe upon them.
Few decisions are ever as sweeping as either side hopes, but the trend in recent ones has been to gradually and thoughtfully scale back the state’s demands that the individual conform, obey or keep quiet.
Let’s look at Monday’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
“The Supreme Court ruled Monday that some corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women,” the Associated Press reported. “The justices’ 5-4 decision is the first time that the high court has ruled that profit-seeking businesses can hold religious views under federal law.”
In fact, the Court’s view is that people form corporations, and people acting in their corporate roles still have rights. That’s why the decision covers a narrow category of corporation — “closely held” companies in which a few family members, for example, really do speak for the ownership of the corporation.
“Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga … protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
The government had argued that a collective benefit — the “right” of women to receive every type of birth control method, including abortifacients, trumps the individual’s right to act according to his or her conscience.
But the Court ruled the government had other means, less restrictive means, to provide those things to women who want them.
The Court also ruled on Monday that home health care workers can’t be forced to join a public employees’ union and pay union dues. Again, the government argued for the collective good — the pay and benefits the unions negotiate from employers.
But home health care workers say their dues would be used to push political agendas they don’t agree with.
“The ruling is a setback for labor unions that have bolstered their ranks and their bank accounts in Illinois and other states by signing up hundreds of thousands of in-home care workers,” the AP explained. “It could lead to an exodus of members who will have little incentive to pay dues if nonmembers don’t have to share the burden of union costs.”
Like the Hobby Lobby decision, it was a win for individuals over the collective.
Both decisions are in line with the most notorious decision of recent years, the Citizens United ruling. The fundamental thinking is the same. People have rights, and they can’t be forced to give up those rights because someone has come along and claimed a “greater good.”
The pendulum is always swinging in politics. The concept of “rugged individualism” is as out of fashion now — in this age of “you didn’t build that” — as it was in fashion in the 1990s.
The Supreme Court’s job is to see beyond fads and ensure that individual rights are protected. That’s exactly what it has done.