WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday held that Congress’ nearly unanimous support for religious freedom extends to for-profit corporations.
The 5-4 ruling found that the employee health plans of for-profit companies do not have to cover all forms of federally approved contraception, mandated under the Affordable Care Act, if company owners have religious objections.
The justices said the ruling applies only to birth control and does not mean religion could be used to justify illegal discrimination against employees or to opt out of covering blood transfusions or vaccinations that might conflict with an owner's religious beliefs.
The case pitted the Obama administration against the faith-based convictions of the owners of two for-profit businesses: Hobby Lobby, an craft store chain; and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a kitchen cabinetry maker.
At the heart of both cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by a nearly unanimous Congress in 1993, as attorneys for both firms claimed the law's provisions balancing government initiatives against religious freedom applied to corporations as well as individuals. Hobby Lobby contended that daily fines of $1.3 million for not complying with the mandate would be a "substantial burden" under the religious freedom law; the government argued such fines were justified because of the public benefits the health care law provides.
"The Supreme Court has reaffirmed what our family has always believed, that America is a country founded on and sustained by religious liberty," Hobby Lobby co-founder Barbara Green said in a video statement released after the decision.
"It's been a long journey, but an important one for our family and for those who wish to be guided in all areas of their life — including their businesses — by faith and conscience," Green said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the ruling "jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies. We believe that owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits."
The government had appealed a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling granting the owners of Hobby Lobby — the Green family, who are evangelical Christians — an injunction against enforcing the contraception mandate. And the Hahn family, Mennonites who own Conestoga Wood, had appealed a 3rd Circuit Court denial of their request for an injunction. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for both cases on March 25.
The court's ruling will also impact around 48 other lawsuits filed by for-profit corporations against the government over the requirement that their employee health plans cover contraception. The plaintiffs all claim that providing artificial birth control to their employees violates the owners' religious beliefs.
Some owners, like the Green family, specifically object to providing drugs under the government's plan that they believe induce abortion, including the "morning after" pill, called Plan B, and Ella, described as a "week after" pill.
Also watching the outcome of the cases are religious-affiliated nonprofit organizations, such as schools, hospitals and charities. The government has been sued by 51 religious nonprofits over the contraception mandate. A total of 25 injunctions against the HHS mandate have been granted to nonprofit organizations so far, with five injunctions denied, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby as well as several nonprofit plaintiffs.
On the for-profit side, Becket reports, 40 injunctions have been granted and six denied.
"There are quite a few more shoes to drop," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Green family at the high court. "The court did not pre-decide the nonprofit accommodation cases but strongly signaled that it will strike down the government system for dealing with those organizations."
Justices' opposing views
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said the government failed to demonstrate that the contraceptive mandate was "the least restrictive means" of guaranteeing free access to birth control and noted the government could provide the disputed contraceptives on its own.
Alito said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could also offer the same accommodation it has implemented for nonprofits whose religious beliefs prevent them from providing contraceptives through their employee health plans. Those groups can have a third-party administrator take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control.
If that system is available in the nonprofit sphere, Alito wrote, it should be available to employees of for-profit firms, and "enforcement of the HHS contraceptive mandate against the objecting parties in these cases is unlawful."
Dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg objected to the notion that a corporation had religious freedom act protections.
"Until this litigation, no decision of this court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption," she wrote. "The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities."
Ginsburg predicted other litigation from companies that seek to use religious views as a shield against government rules.
"The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood — combined with its other errors in construing (the religious freedom act) — invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith," she wrote.
Reaction to ruling
Within minutes of the decision, voices on both sides of the issue were quick to express happiness or disappointment at the result.
"This is a major victory for religious liberty and Christian conscience. It is not only a victory for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, but for the American people," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. "The major issue in this case was and is religious liberty as today's decision makes very clear."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also applauded the ruling even though it did not address the bishops' objections to the Obama administration's accommodation for nonprofits, such as Catholic charities and schools.
"We're behind the ACA in general," said the Most Reverend John C. Wester, bishop of Salt Lake City. "We think it’s a good thing to give people affordable health care, but we believe it’s important for religions to be able to define themselves."
The Center for Inquiry, a secular group that opposed Hobby Lobby's position, feared the ruling may extend beyond contraception, despite the majority justices' assurances to the contrary.
"The potential effects of this decision are absolutely chilling, setting a precedent that is sure to reverberate far beyond the issue of contraceptive coverage," said Ronald A. Lindsay, center president and CEO, said in a statement. "This is not a decision that advances religious freedom — it is a decision that enshrines religious privilege over and above employee well-being. This decision defies common sense, lacks compassion, and has the potential to harm us all."
Most working women will probably see no impact from the ruling, corporate health benefits consultants told the Associated Press. Publicly traded companies are unlikely to drag religion into their employee benefit plans, said Mark Holloway, director of compliance services at the Lockton Companies, an insurance broker that serves medium-sized and growing employers.
"Most employers view health insurance as a tool to attract and retain employees," said Holloway. "Women employees want access to contraceptive coverage, and most employers don't have a problem providing that coverage. It is typically not a high-cost item."
Looking forward, two legal scholars said that while the for-profit business cases that objected to contraceptive provisions in the ACA "should be controlled" by Monday's ruling, the outlook for some other nonprofit challengers may be less clear.
George Washington University law professor Robert Tuttle said the Supreme Court specifically said its decision didn't apply to nonprofits such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, which has sued the government over the ACA's requirement that they sign a document spelling out their objections. The Little Sisters said such a certification would make them complicit in the provision of contraceptives even if a third party handled the coverage at no cost to them.
But University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, who worked behind the scenes to help spearhead the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 20 years ago, said today's ruling does not bode well for changing the certification process provided for nonprofits with religious objections since the majority opinion offered it as a solution to for-profit businesses as well.
The court "found a win-win solution, and I would be surprised if they jeopardize that solution by giving broad (certification) relief to the nonprofits," he said.
Both Laycock and Tuttle agree that the act stands taller today after the high court's decision. "The (Supreme) Court has taken RFRA quite seriously now," Laycock noted.
"The court certainly had an opportunity to give a narrow reading to RFRA, and it didn't do that," Tuttle said. "When faced with the choice, it gave a broader (reading)."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and a lead sponsor of the religious freedom law, said the court gave the intended interpretation of the legislation that passed a nearly unanimous Congress in 1993.
"The notion that religious freedom belongs only to some, and even then only in private, defies our nation's traditions, our laws, and our Constitution," he said. "And as the Supreme Court rightfully said today, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could not have been clearer in saying religious liberty of all Americans must be equally protected and not unnecessarily burdened."
Tuttle added that state courts are likely to take a cue from the Supreme Court ruling when interpreting state versions of RFRA.
"I would expect to see some interesting implications of this in state law claims applying state RFRAs," he said.