As expected, the last case ruled on before the Supreme Court of the United States adjourned until October was the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case. For those unaware, this case is based on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, classifying contraceptives as preventive healthcare required under all insurance plans without a co-pay. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood both objected to this, saying that covering some forms of birth control, like the IUD/IUS or Plan B, violated their religious beliefs by requiring them to fund abortive medications.1
Unfortunately, SCOTUS ruled for Hobby Lobby/Conestoga, agreeing that the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Now, before we get into the particulars,2 let’s go over the generals:
- NO, SCOTUS did not overturn the contraception mandate.
- NO, SCOTUS did not rule companies do not have to provide contraception to employees.
This is a limited ruling that does not affect publicly-held corporations, or privately or closely-held corporations that do not also have sincere religious beliefs.
So what did happen? SCOTUS ruled that closely-held corporations owned by people with sincere religious beliefs do not have to provide contraception coverage that violates those sincerely-held religious beliefs.
It’s important to note that this is a very, very narrow ruling. In the majority rule, Justice Alito noted that this particular ruling would not give companies room to discriminate; for example, a closely-held corporation owned by folks whose religion finds gay people an abomination would not be allowed to freely discriminate against gay folks. This ruling does not overturn federal protections for suspect or quasi-suspect classes.
…your eyes just glazed over, didn’t they? At the end of this post, you’ll find a treatise on legal vocabulary that might help the above make sense. For now, let me put it into English for you: highly religious families that own large businesses that employ lots of people but don’t share that stock love around are allowed to deny female employees certain types of contraception based on scientifically incorrect notions of what an abortion is, but that’s all they’re allowed to do.
In line with the Citizen’s United ruling that says corporations (are people too) have free speech, this ruling says that a small, small group of companies in the United States are protected under the RFRA, because they have a religion.
In the run-up to this decision, I’ve quipped (repeatedly) that I’ve never seen a corporation in a church before. SCOTUS would reply: when that company is held by five or fewer related family members with shared sincere religious beliefs, if you’ve gone to church with that family, you’ve seen that corporation in church.
In other words, there is no firewall between the religious beliefs of a family and the company that the family runs. (This also would apply to a small group of people who share a sincere religious belief but are not related.)
The reason for this is that the ACA mandate fails the Sherbert Test. Justice Kennedy said that he believed that the option for religiously-affiliated organizations, such as Catholic hospitals, to opt-out of contraception coverage meant that the government could not prove that requiring Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood (or other closely-held corporations with sincere religious beliefs) to include contraception coverage in the health policies they contribute to was the least restrictive or burdensome option. In the case of the religiously-affiliated non-profit organizations, women are able to receive contraceptive coverage through separate health policies provided by the federal government at no charge; Justice Kennedy clearly feels that this will be extended to women who work at closely-held corporations with sincere religious beliefs against some contraceptives.
Of course, as SCOTUSblog noted, there are a couple of issues here. The bigger one is whether or not the Department of Health and Human Services has the authority to extend the non-profit contraception exemption to closely-held corporations; I expect we’ll see the Obama Administration clarify this quickly (and most people seem to think that HHS has the authority to do this, including SCOTUS).
The smaller issue is an interesting one. There are some non-profit groups that have argued that even signing a certificate that says they object to providing contraception coverage for their female employees is a violation of the RFRA. Today’s Hobby Lobby/Conestoga ruling seems to imply that SCOTUS does not find the process of certifying beliefs an undue burden under RFRA, which could effectively shut down some 20-odd cases around the country.3
So in sum, closely-held corporations can express religion and are protected under RFRA as long as it’s a sincerely-held religious belief, but the expression of their religious beliefs does not go so far as to allow discrimination; women employed by these companies should still be able to receive free contraceptive coverage from HHS, like women who work for religious non-profits do; and signing a piece of paper to indicate that your company’s sincerely held religious beliefs is probably not going to be viewed as an undue burden by SCOTUS.
It’s an interesting ruling, and one that I suspect isn’t going to make too many people happy, even while people will incorrectly make absurd statements on what the ruling means.
My personal take is a bit more esoteric: I actually think this Supreme Court is laying the groundwork for a robust federalized healthcare for everyone; clearly, they have established that it is appropriate for the government to offer and require insurance. This shifts another bit of the burden away from companies and towards the federal government, and I suspect that these tiny shifts are what it’s going to take to end up in a system of basic healthcare services provided by the government, with the option for additional insurance offered by companies as hiring incentives or purchased on the market for those interested. The question then becomes: is this intentional by Justice Alito and the other conservatives judges, or is this just happy coincidence as they strive to protect the rights of corporations to be people?
Let’s talk about vocabulary, everyone’s favourite subject! In specific, let’s get some definitions for SCOTUS vocabulary and legal language out and down on paper, so that we’re all on the same page.4
A closely-held corporation is a private company owned, directly or indirectly, by a small group of people; the majority of the shares are held by five or fewer people.5 These are not publicly traded companies; if a shareholder wants to sell, it must be to an existing shareholder.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act
The RFRA is a 1993 law, signed by Bill Clinton, that prevents laws that substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion. RFRA applies to the federal government, not state governments. As ACA is also a federal mandate, it is subject to scrutiny under RFRA. The law reinstates the Sherbert Test to see if an individual’s right to free expression of religion has been violated by the government, and mandates that any challenge involving the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment be subject to strict scrutiny.
This is the test used to determine whether or not the government has violated free expression of religion. For an individual, (and remember, corporations are people, too!), the court must determine:
- whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and
- whether the government action is a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief.
If these two elements can be established, the government must then prove that it:
- is acting in furtherance of a “compelling state interest,” and
- it has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.
This is the most stringent standard of judicial review available, and is generally invoked in situations that either involve suspect classifications or constitutional challenges.
Suspect and Quasi-Suspect Classification
A suspect classification is any group of people that meet criteria suggesting they have been or will be the subject of discrimination. This criteria includes a history of discrimination, hostility, prejudice, and stigma against the group in question, which can be based on stereotypes; immutable or highly visible traits; little to no political power; their distinguishing features do not render the group unable to meaningfully contribute to society.
The Supreme Court recognizes race, national origin, religion and alienage (not being citizen of the United States) as suspect classes. Gender, parentage (legitimacy), and sexual orientation are recognized as quasi-suspect classes.
Sincere religious beliefs
First, let’s be clear: a religious belief does not necessarily mean a belief in God(s). In Welsh v. United State, SCOTUS ruled that “the definition of “religion” is not dependent on a belief in a “Supreme Being.” A person’s beliefs may be deemed “religious beliefs” if those beliefs occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that of God in traditional religions.”6
In Brown v. Pena, SCOTUS cited three things to determine whether or not a belief is a religious belief:
- whether the belief is based on a theory of “man’s nature or his place in the Universe;”
- which is not merely a personal preference but has an institutional quality about it; and
- which is sincere.
Unique moral preferences thus are not also religious beliefs. (So, for example, being a vegan without also being a member of a religious order whose institutional and accepted religious texts required a vegan diet, would not be a religious belief.)
And finally, how do you determine if said religious belief is sincere? There are multiple cases that discuss what a sincere belief is7 and determined that elements of sincerity for the purpose of religious belief includes following the rules and restrictions of the religion in question, attendance to appropriate worship services, acknowledgment of religious holidays, association with other people of the same religion, and so on.
- We’re just going to sigh and ignore proper science right now, okay? Because otherwise we’re going to go nowhere but to the nearest hard surface. With our heads. [↩]
- I am not a lawyer; let’s just get that out of the way up front. [↩]
- Emily Bazelon has more about these cases over at Slate. [↩]
- Remember, I am not a lawyer. [↩]
- So sayeth the IRS. [↩]
- All referenced court cases in this section are from the document “Selected Cases on Religious Discrimination” prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel for the US EEOC. [↩]
- EEOC. v. Ilona of Hungary, Inc; EEOC v. Union Independiete De La Autoridad De Acueductos y Alcantarillados De Puerto Rico; Hussein v. Waldorf-Astoria; Bailey v. Associated Press; etc. [↩]