Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomDecision and later action in a nonprofit case spark responses

By Religion News Service with BJC Staff Reports

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 30 that a for-profit arts-and-crafts store chain does not have to offer health insurance coverage for types of birth control that conflict with company owners’ religious beliefs, a decision that provoked swift political and legislative responses.

The decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. held that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — which sets a high bar for any federal law that restricts religious practice — applies to the closely held for-profit business. It said the government could have found a way to achieve the goals of the so-called “contraceptive mandate” of the country’s health care law without impinging on religious rights, which is a RFRA requirement.

Lawyers for Hobby Lobby argued that the health care law violated RFRA when it required the company and another owned by a Mennonite family — Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. — to provide employees with insurance coverage for birth control the companies’ owners found contrary to their Christian beliefs. RFRA created a legal standard to ensure that government did not substantially burden the exercise of religion without a compelling reason for doing so. Known as “strict scrutiny” in constitutional law terminology, it requires that the government satisfy a high burden of proof before infringing citizens’ rights.

The Court noted that its decision does not involve publicly traded corporations, for which the owners’ religious beliefs would be difficult to discern. It also points out that even though employers at the companies cannot be forced to cover types of contraception that conflict with their religious beliefs, that should not be understood to necessarily mean employers can refuse to cover any medical procedure — such as immunizations — that conflicts with their personal religious beliefs.

The Court said that the Department of Health and Human Services has given no reason why for-profit employers cannot be extended the same accommodation made available to religious nonprofits who can choose to opt-out of coverage they find objectionable (nonprofits must notify their insurers of their religious objection, and the coverage is provided directly by the insurance company or a third-party administrator). The decision said the accommodation “constitutes an alternative that achieves all of the Government’s aims while providing greater respect for religious liberty.”

The religious nonprofit accommodation was the subject of a different lawsuit that prompted Court action days later. In an order July 3, the Court temporarily granted evangelical Wheaton College the ability to opt-out of providing insurance coverage for contraception it finds objectionable without signing a form to do so. The college claimed that even signing the form (which instead provides for the coverage to be administered by a third party) would make it complicit in the transaction.

That order drew a vehement objection of the Court’s three female justices. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan, dissented from the order, saying the accommodation already granted to religious nonprofits “is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests in public health and women’s well-being.”

The Court’s actions led to two administration responses in July. After a measure in the U.S. Senate that would have reversed the Hobby Lobby ruling failed July 16, the Obama administration said employers that intend to drop coverage for some or all forms of contraception must notify employees of the change. Later, the administration said it is developing an alternative plan for employees of certain charities, hospitals and colleges to receive insurance coverage of all FDA-approved methods of birth control without having their objecting employers sign the form that allows the coverage to be provided through other means. Administration officials indicated to media outlets that the new process will be added as a second way for those nonprofit employers to opt out.

Read BJC Executive Director Brent Walker’s column: “Exploring Hobby Lobby’s narrow victory.”

Read BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman’s column: “Examining RFRA in light of Hobby Lobby.”

 From the July/August 2014 Report From the Capital. Click here to read the next article.

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