Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
Full name: Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., Petitioners v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Mardel, Inc., David Green, Barbara Green, Steve Green, Mart Green, and Darsee Lett; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, et al., Petitioners v. Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al.
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Related IssuesDiscrimination: Gender
Related BillsPatient Protection and Affordable Care Act
2010 (HR-3590)Religious Freedom Restoration Act
What was this case about?
The Supreme Court ruled that for-profit corporations owned primarily by a small group of people can claim religious exemptions to federal laws in some situations.
How did this case get to the Supreme Court?
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) requires companies with more than 50 employees to offer insurance plans that cover various types of contraception.
Hobby Lobby is a national chain of arts and crafts stores with 21,000 employees. It is a closely-held private company - controlled by family members.
In 2012, the company stopped offering certain contraceptives (4 out of the 18 required) to its employees, claiming those particular contraceptives violated the owners' religious beliefs regarding abortion.
The company sued the government - on the basis that the law forced the owning family to choose between acting against their religious beliefs or paying a high fine - more than a million dollars per day.
Another closely-held company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, had filed a separate suit and was included with Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court case.
Can corporations have religious beliefs?
The first thing the court needed to decide was whether the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects for-profit corporations as well as individuals.
In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that law does - because a corporation is an extension of its owners...
"A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people."
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the Supreme Court had never granted a religious exemption that would have a detrimental effect on others that don't share that religious belief.
"With respect to free exercise claims no less than free speech claims, your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man?s nose begins," she wrote.
Ginsburg also differentiated between religious organizations and for-profit companies. Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of those who subscribe to the same religious beliefs.
"Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community."
Is the government over-burdening the company?
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows for restrictions on religious practices only when there is a compelling government interest. There was no disagreement that providing contraceptives is a compelling interest.
The government must, however, find the least restrictive way to achieve its interest. The majority ruled that requiring Hobby Lobby to provide the contested contraceptives for its employees was not the least restrictive way.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) already was accommodating non-profit organizations with religious objections. Those organizations can opt-out of paying for that coverage by submitting a form to their insurance company. The insurance provider then will pay for those contraceptives.
Alito also suggested that the federal government could pay for contraceptive services that are excluded because of a religious objection.
Ginsbug dissented, saying that such accommodations simply shift the financial burden from the company to the government.
"And such an alternative, the Court suggests, there always will be whenever, in lieu of tolling an enterprise claiming a religion-based exemption, the government, i.e., the general public, can pick up the tab."
What are the likely effects of this decision?
The full effects of this decision still aren't known. Several religious organizations and companies have filed lawsuits similar to Hobby Lobby. Other cases include Autocam v. Burwell and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.
In addition, a few days after the court issued its ruling in this case, it granted a temporary injunction to Wheaton College - a religious college in Illinois - from having to even fill out the form. In other words, the form that court had ruled three days earlier was acceptable under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, now might not be acceptable. The court has yet to issue a final decision in Wheaton College v. Burwell.
It is important to keep the contraception-related effects in perspective. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has allowed millions of previously uninsured women to obtain insurance that pays for contraceptives. This includes medicaid expansion for those living in poverty.
How far the reach of this decision may spread also is yet to be seen, though it may be more limited than some speculate. For one thing, many employers simply will not object to the coverage.
Some have speculated the ruling could exempt companies from laws prohibiting discrimination based on attributes such as ethnicity and sexual orientation. For that to happen based on this decision however, these companies would need to show there is a lesser restrictive way to achieve the government's compelling interest.
It's worth nothing that several states still allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to federal laws only, and cannot be enforced against states.
For more on this, see our discussion of the issue of Discrimination and Civil Rights.