In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, wherein the highest court in the land affirmed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to closely held corporations (i.e., some 90% of corporations employing over 50% of private employees), that closely held corporations can have sincere religious beliefs, and that those beliefs allow them to opt-out of the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate, one lawyer has a pretty neat idea. Can such an exemption apply to student loans?
Can people, who certainly are able to sincerely hold religious beliefs, be exempt from paying back their federal student loans because of those beliefs? Tyler Coulsen argues that the Old Testament firmly states that “all debt shall be forgiven after seven years.” Moreover, the Hobby Lobby decision held that a “less restrictive alternative” to the contraception mandate is to simply have the government provide the contraception itself, which would both allow the government to seek its “compelling interest” in providing contraception and avoid “unduly burdening” Hobby Lobby’s “religious beliefs.” (Which of those are scare quotes? You decide!). Based on that logic, Coulsen argues, wouldn’t a less restrictive alternative to forcing him to pay back his loans, despite his religious beliefs, be to simply have the government forgive them? It would allow the government to pursue its compelling interest in providing educational loans — much of which would still be paid back (seven years is a long time, after all) — without unduly burdening Coulsen’s religion.
Of course, there are a million questions — is the debt provision of the Old Testament “central” to his beliefs, does he “sincerely” hold these beliefs, and what is the government’s real compelling interest when it comes to student loans — i.e., is debt and interest collection the actual compelling interest here, and not simply allowing everyone access to education?
Or is this all clearly out of the question, given the Hobby Lobby decision’s clear statement that such an exemption would not be available for tax cases (an interesting turn of events, given that the Court only just held that the penalties that individuals might have to pay for avoiding Obamacare — analogous to the ones Hobby Lobby could have paid to avoid the contraception mandate in the first place– were actually taxes; but I guess penalties on individuals are taxes, but corporate penalties are fines? I don’t even know).
In any case, I’d love to see someone test the theory and find out! And hop on over to Coulsen’s blog post for a more in-depth reading of his argument.
photo credit: Occupy Radio