by Audrey Legrand
On June 30, 2014, the United States Supreme Court decided a landmark case determining that for-profit corporations could choose not to provide emergency contraceptives in their insurance plans to employees if it contradicts their religious beliefs.
In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, the challenges were brought by Oklahoma-based craft store Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based cabinet store Conestoga Wood Specialties. Hobby Lobby’s owners are Evangelical Christians and Conestoga’s owners are Mennonites, whose religions both believe that life begins at conception. Both argued that providing emergency contraceptives, including Plan B; ella; and the intrauterine devices ParaGard, Mirena, and Skyla, were against their religious beliefs and they did not want to provide them to their approximately 15,000 (Hobby Lobby) and 1,000 (Conestoga) employees through a nationwide insurance plan.
The 5-4 decision by the Court does not include other forms of contraception and applies only to closely-held corporations with a limited number of shareholders. Nonetheless, it is the first major victory conservatives have sustained against the Affordable Care Act since the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states could opt out of the act’s Medicare expansion. Originally, they would have been withheld all federal funding if they refused the expansion: The ACA, signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama, mandated that private companies with 50 or more employees offer a health care plan that provides contraception at no charge to the worker or the company would be charged a $2,000 fine per employee.
The case turned largely on whether the 1993 Religion Freedom Restoration Act applies to for-profit companies as well as people. The act’s text reads that “governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.”
“We doubt that the Congress that enacted [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] — or, for that matter, ACA – would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the Hobby Lobby opinion, which was joined by the Court’s other conservative members: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg delivered a blistering 35-page dissent to the opinion that has since gone viral, stating that “the exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.” She was joined in the full dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan for all but Part III – C-1, which questioned “whether a corporation qualifies as a ‘person’ capable of exercising religion.”
This is a resounding victory for conservatives and libertarians, who advocate for small, non-interventional government, as well as big business, as critics are fearful that large businesses may now have more rights than their employees. Still, the ruling does not apply to publicly owned companies or non-closely held corporations. Religious employers and nonprofits whose beliefs prohibit the use of contraceptive methods that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing further are already exempt from this contraceptive mandate.
Critics are concerned that the ruling could open the door to other closely held corporations (where 51 percent of the company is owned by five or fewer individuals) seeking relief from ACA mandates that contradict their religious beliefs, such as vaccinations or transfusions. Human rights groups are concerned that the decision could prompt companies to deny services to LGBT individuals, should their owners’ religious affiliations cause them to disapprove of homosexuality.
Critics also question the Court’s decision for a corporation to maintain the same rights as an individual in terms of religious freedom, as well as the religious freedom of an employee of a closely held corporation being overridden by the corporation’s religious beliefs.
A day later on July 1, the Supreme Court decided issued orders on six cases, all pertaining to business owners who objected to the pregnancy and contraceptive-related measures mandated under the ACA.
A federal appeals court had rejected the challenges to the federal health care mandate in three separate cases, Autocam Corp. v. Burwell, Gilardi v. Department of Health and Human Sciences, and Eden Foods v. Burwell. The Supreme Court orders instructed them to reopen the cases in view of Monday’s decision, after the owners had taken their petitions to the Court.
Three petitions filed by the federal government– Department of Health and Human Services v. Gilardi (the appeal to the case above), Burwell v. Newland, and Burwell v. Korte – in which appeals court rulings rejected the challenges by corporations, were denied review by the owners and/or the Court.
On July 3 in an unsigned decision, the court granted an injunction to Christian liberal arts college Wheaton College to allow the Illinois school to avoid compliance with the ACA mandate, pending a full review. The injunction examines whether Wheaton should be required to fill out a form certifying that it was denying its employees contraceptive coverage as part of a mandated health plan, and if the school refused, whether it would be subjected to fines for not providing what the health care law deems minimal essential coverage.
While the injunction is unsigned, the three female Court justices delivered a dissent, stating “After expressly relying on the availability of the religious non-profit accommodation to hold that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] as applied to closely held for-profit corporations, the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position.”
On July 23, the Obama administration announced that it would revise rules involving birth-control mandate opt-outs in an attempt to provide contraceptive coverage to women now denied it by their employers, post-Hobby Lobby. Until such revisions are chosen, however, the aftermath of the decision remains up in the air as more cases and challenges are decided based upon the June 30 5-4 decision.