AHA Roundtable: Historians Weigh in on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

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 GriswoldAlonzo 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.

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

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  1. Carrie P.

    Shouldn’t there be a discussion here from a women’s history perspective? Hamby’s touches on this, but it could – and should – be made much more explicit. Major oversight.

    1. Allen Mikaelian


      Thank you for your comment. I agree that this case absolutely cried out for a perspective from women’s history and we had someone lined up to write from that perspective. Last minute circumstances beyond that author’s control, and ours, kept that piece from being written. Given the short timeline, we haven’t been able to correct this yet. We do regret the omission, but hope our readers won’t consider it an oversight.

      Thank you for reading Perspectives,
      Allen Mikaelian
      Editor, Perspectives on History

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