Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

What happened?

  • The owners of three closely held for-profit corporations hold Christian beliefs that life begins at conception.  The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) requires employers insurance plans to cover women’s preventative care, which the Dept. of HHS determined to include 20 contraceptives, including four that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus, i.e., an “abortifacient”.
  • Hobby Lobby, a family-owned business (later joined by two other companies) filed for an injunction against HHS to stop the application of the contraceptive mandate with respect to the four abortifacients.  Their case was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.  The injunction was denied at the District Court, which held that a for-profit corporation could not “engage in religious exercise.”  The Court of Appeals reversed and said that the businesses at issue were “persons” under the RFRA.

How did the Court rule?

  • By 5-4, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appeals Court, Hobby Lobby wins.  The RFRA was broadly written and protects the free exercise rights of closely held corporations and thus, the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.
  • The text and congressional intent behind the RFRA is that a “corporation” can be a “person” (a point conceded by HHS).
  • Under RFRA, a government action that places a “substantial burden” on religious exercise must be the least restrictive means of serving that interest.  HHS failed this test.

What did the dissent say?

  • The ruling allows corporations to opt out of any law they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • The ruling accommodates the beliefs of a few, while ignoring the impact on thousands of employees who may not share their employer’s views.
  • For-profit corporations do not possess religious rights under the RFRA.

What does it mean?

  • The government cannot require closely held, for-profit corporations to provide contraceptives in violation of their free exercise of religion.
  • A small blow to Obamacare, which will now have to make changes in order to achieve its goal of employer health plans covering contraceptives by law.

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