The case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is a landmark case decided in 2014, by the Supreme Court. The decision held that a for-profit corporation could be exempt from regulations the owners religiously object to, provided there is another less restrictive way to further the interests of the law. This was the high court interpretation of the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This decision is important because this is the first time the court has recognized that the owners of for-profit corporations can have rights to claim religious exemptions for “closely held” companies.
The U. S. Department of Human Services adopted a regulation under the Affordable Care Act that required employers to provide all female employees with access to certain contraceptives that the company was then required to pay for under their health plan. The court ordered a government-sponsored female birth control alternative for female employees of these“closely held” companies whose owners had religious objections to providing contraceptives to its employees.
The Department of Health and Human Services is required to specify all the preventative care that companies are required to provide to their employees in the company health plan, under the Affordable Care Act. The DHHS approved all 20 forms for female contraceptives as preventative care that must be covered by all employee sponsored health plans. Certain religious and non-profit groups were exempted, but most for-profit corporations were subject to these new regulations under the ACA.
In 2012, The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties filed a lawsuit stating that their “closely-held” for-profit corporations were founded on Christian beliefs that were in direct conflict with the preventative contraceptive requirements the DHHS had required companies to provide its employees with. They claimed that their companies had been founded on strong Christian beliefs that life begins at conception and to provide contraception to it employees would be the same as constituting abortion.
In a 5-4 decision made on June 30, 2014 five justices of the Supreme Court joined together to strike down the mandate made by the DHHS. They determined that corporations cannot be compelled to provide contraceptives to its employees under their corporate health plans if they refuse to do so for religious reasons.
The court did not look at any first amendment issues. Rather it reasoned that the DHHS can consider non-profit corporations to be “persons” under the RFRA so it should follow that in some circumstances for-profit corporations should also be able to be considered a “person” under RFRA. The justices also looked at a 1993 federal statute that exempted health care entities from taking part in “certain activities related to abortion.”
There is already a mechanism in place to provide for contraceptives of employees from non-profit organizations that do not pay for birth control due to religious exemptions. The Supreme Court used this to support the majority opinion that the female employees of affected for-profit corporations could be treated in the same manner as those in the non-profit corporations are.
This decision is important because it further advances the concept that both non-profit and for-profit corporations can be viewed as “persons” in their own right when applying legal rights and obligations upon them. It remains to be seen how granting religious exemptions for this matter to these “people” will affect the legal landscape in the years to come.