The Affordable Care Act mandates that that employers provide health insurance that includes coverage for contraception. There are exemptions to the law for certain businesses owned by religious groups, but not for businesses that just happened to be owned by people with personal religious beliefs that don't support contraception.
At the heart of the debate is the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except… if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
According to lawyers for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, the Affordable Care Act requires them “to do precisely what their religion forbids them or face draconian consequences — including millions in fines, private lawsuits and government enforcement actions.”
Lawyers for the government argued that the RFRA was intended to protect individuals and not the owners of corporations, and that the contraception mandate places no personal burden on business owners since they are not the actual insurer and it is the employees’ choice as to whether they use that particular coverage.
Hobby Lobby had successfully argued its point to a federal appeals court agreed which found that corporations have the same political speech rights as individuals. Conestoga, which is owned by a Mennonite family, lost its argument before a federal appeals court.
In arguments earlier this year before the Supreme Court, some justices had asked whether there was a difference between a large publicly held company with shareholders, etc., and a smaller, private company with only a few owners. Today's ruling seeks to draw a line between those two by saying that the RFRA does indeed protect the rights of closely held corporations.
Many watchers of this case were concerned that a Hobby Lobby victory would create a slippery slope, allowing any business owner to cite the RFRA in getting around any labor laws, not just insurance mandates.
After all, they argued, if a business owner doesn't have to follow federal law because he or she has a problem with contraception, could they not also then cite the RFRA in refusing to hire or do business with homosexuals? It additionally brings up the concern of what constitutes a valid religious belief. Could a business owner simply claim that he doesn't want to hire women because his particular religion -- of which he might be the only member -- tells him to?
The majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, attempts to quell some of these concerns, limiting the ruling to only the contraceptive mandate, and specifically stating that it should not be understood to apply to other insurance mandates, like those for blood transfusions or vaccinations.
"It is [the Dept. of Health and Human Service's] apparent belief that no insurance-coverage mandate would violate RFRA — no matter how significantly it impinges on the religious liberties of employers — that would lead to intolerable consequences,” reads the majority opinion. “Under HHS’s view, RFRA would permit the Government to require all employers to provide coverage for any medical procedure allowed by law in the jurisdiction in question — for instance, third-trimester abortions or assisted suicide. The owners of many closely held corporations could not in good conscience provide such coverage, and thus HHS would effectively exclude these people from full participation in the economic life of the Nation. RFRA was enacted to prevent such an outcome.”
Alito also attempts to shoot down worries about illegal hiring practices being masked by RFRA claims, explaining that, “The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.”
Joining Alito in ruling for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga were Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas.
Writing for the dissenting members of the court, Justice Ginsburg says the ruling has flung open the door to business owners claiming religious exemptions to get whatever they want.
“In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” writes Ginsburg. In the Court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith — in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ.”
Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor also dissented.