Monday, June 30, 2014

Supreme Court Rules RFRA Allows Closely-Held Corporations To Refuse Contraceptive Coverage

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., (S.Ct., June 30, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and other closely held corporations whose owners object on religious grounds to providing coverage for contraceptive services. In a majority opinion by Justice Alito, the court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to closely-held corporations, and that the government has not shown that the mandate is the least restrictive means of furthering its presumably compelling interest in guraranteeing cost-free access to the four contraceptive methods to which the companies object. Justice Alito said in part:
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.
Although HHS has made this system available to religious nonprofits that have religious objections to the contraceptive mandate, HHS has provided no reason why the same system cannot be made available when the owners of for-profit corporations have similar religious objections. We therefore conclude that this system constitutes an alternative that achieves all of the Government’s aims while providing greater respect for religious liberty. And under RFRA, that conclusion means that enforcement of the HHS contraceptive mandate against the objecting parties in these cases is unlawful.
Justice Alito argues that the majority opinion is narrow:
We do not hold, as the principal dissent alleges, that for-profit corporations and other commercial enterprises can “opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
He says that if the same accommodation given to religious non-profits were extended to closely-held corporations, the effect on women "would be precisely zero."

Justice Kennedy filed a concurring opinion as well as joining Justice Alito's majority opinion. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented in two related dissenting opinions.

Justice Ginsburg's dissenting opinion calls the majority's decision one of "startling breadth." She adds in a section of her dissent joined only by Justice Sotomayor: "Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private."

Additional analysis of the decision will follow in separate posts.