On June 30, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in favor of religious liberty in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In this case, three closely held corporations — Conestoga Wood Specialties; Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.; and Mardel (a chain of Christian bookstores owned by the same family as Hobby Lobby) — challenged the contraceptive mandate that is part of the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In brief, the plaintiffs argued that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, protected them from being forced to provide certain contraceptive drugs and devices to their employees, a mandate that would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito authored the 5-4 majority opinion, which Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas joined. Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor dissented. Below is an excerpt from the decision that clearly outlines the issues at hand and the reasoning the High Court used to draw its conclusion.
“We must decide in these cases whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)…, permits the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to demand that three closely held corporations provide health-insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies’ owners. We hold that the regulations that impose this obligation violate RFRA, which prohibits the Federal Government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.
In holding that the HHS mandate is unlawful, we reject HHS’s argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.
Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price – as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.
Under RFRA, a Government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest, and we assume that the HHS regulations satisfy this requirement. But in order for the HHS mandate to be sustained, it must also constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest, and the mandate plainly fails that test. There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives.
In fact, HHS has already devised and implemented a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious nonprofit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections to providing such coverage. The employees of these religious nonprofit corporations still have access to insurance coverage without cost sharing for all FDA-approved contraceptives; and according to HHS, this system imposes no net economic burden on the insurance companies that are required to provide or secure the coverage.”
More information and analysis of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision can be found on the websites of the following organizations:
Lori Windham, Senior Counsel for The Becket Fund and counsel for Hobby Lobby, responded to the decision saying, “The Supreme Court recognized that Americans do not lose their religious freedom when they run a family business. This ruling will protect people of all faiths. The Court’s reasoning was clear, and it should have been clear to the government.”