AHA Roundtable

Historians Weigh in on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Allen Mikaelian, July 2014

Photo Credit: American Life League. (CC BY-NC 2.0). Guided by the conviction that history and historical thinking can help illuminate just about any contemporary discussion, Perspectives on History has, for three years running, invited historians to comment on significant Supreme Court decisions. The court regularly uses history in its deliberations, and its decisions frequently mark a significant historical moment. In the often rancorous discussions that follow, we believe that historians can raise the level of discourse by showing how ideas about the issues have changed over time and where the decision fits in with, or utterly breaks with, what has come before. We ask our contributors to comment as historians, and while we do not insist on neutrality, we do ask participants in this forum to refrain from mere partisanship and punditry.

The major case just decided, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., is exactly the kind of complex case that benefits from historical thinking. Is the way the majority opinion approaches corporations a significant break from the way we have defined corporations in the past? In their comment on the case, Ruth Bloch and Naomi Lamoreaux guide us through a legal history of corporate personhood. Is Hobby Lobby as significant as Griswold? Alonzo Hamby discusses here the ways in which both of these cases signaled an important cultural shift. What did religious liberty mean to those who crafted the Free Exercise Clause? John Fea notes a few differences between the champions of religious liberty, then and now. Why is birth control the contested ground for these discussions? Jean Baker gives context to the decision through the history of the birth control movement.

We hope these contributions are constructive and instructive, and, as always, we welcome further comment.