WASHINGTON (CNS) — In a narrowly tailored 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court June 30 said closely held companies may be exempted from a government requirement to include contraceptives in employee health insurance coverage under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The court said that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the two family-run companies that objected to the government mandate that employees be covered for a range of contraceptives, including drugs considered to be abortifacients, are protected from the requirement of the Affordable Care Act. The opinion essentially held that for-profit companies may hold protected religious views.
But the court also said that government requirements do not necessarily lose if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.
The ruling is not a slam-dunk for all entities that oppose the contraceptive mandate for religious reasons. The court noted that cases challenging the mandate for nonprofit entities, such as Catholic colleges and faith-based employers, are pending and that the June 30 ruling doesn’t consider them. The decision also did not delve into whether the private employers have religiously motivated protection from laws under the First Amendment.
It said the government failed to satisfy the requirement of RFRA, a 1993 law, that the least-restrictive means of accomplishing a government goal be followed to avoid imposing a restriction on religious expression.
The majority opinion said the ruling applies only to the contraceptive mandate and should not be interpreted to hold that all insurance coverage mandates — such as for blood transfusions or vaccinations — necessarily fail if they conflict with an employers’ religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the primary holding, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate concurring opinion, which agreed with the ruling, but made clear that while the opinion applies to the particular companies involved in this case, it’s not a sweeping condemnation of the key elements of the contraceptive mandate itself.
“It is important to confirm that a premise of the court’s opinion is its assumption that the HHS regulation here furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of female employees,” wrote Kennedy in his concurrence. He went on to say that the federal government failed to use the least restrictive means of meeting that interest, pointing out that it has granted exemptions from the mandate for employees of nonprofit religious organizations.
“That accommodation equally furthers the government interest, but does not impinge on the plaintiff’s religious beliefs,” he wrote.
In the 49-page majority opinion, Alito noted that the department of Health and Human Services that administers the ACA has already provided exemptions from some of the coverage requirements for employers in a variety of situations, including some that were grandfathered in without certain provisions and employers of fewer than 50 workers.
He also said that the standard for the government of meeting a general good by the least restrictive means is “exceptionally demanding,” and that the contraceptives provision fails to meet it. The federal government could easily, and relatively inexpensively, cover the cost of providing the disputed contraceptives coverage, Alito said.
And he said the federal government already has a system for handling the mandate for nonprofit religious organizations with objections to the mandate.
Under that accommodation, organizations self-certify that their religious objections entitle them to exemption from the mandate. In those cases, third party insurers arrange for the provision to be handled without involvement or cost to the employer.
Alito specified that the opinion does not decide whether the accommodation approach complies with RFRA for all objections. “At a minimum, however, it does not impinge on the plaintiff’s religious belief that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue violates their religion, and it serves HHS’s stated interests very well.”
Alito also noted that the opinion should not be understood to mean any religion-based objection to a requirement of the ACA would be upheld. Different issues would arise, for instance, in the case of objections to vaccinations that protect public health, he said.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said the court’s decision means “justice has prevailed.” In a joint statement, the two archbishops said they would continue to press for a culture that respects religious liberties.
“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business. In this case, justice has prevailed, with the Court respecting the rights of the Green and Hahn families to continue to abide by their faith in how they seek their livelihood, without facing devastating fines. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom,” the statement read.
A case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS is still pending.
“The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well,” the archbishops’ statement noted.
Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the Catholic Church in Arizona, said the court’s decision was important for religious liberties.
“Certainly it showed that these two families have the right to have their freedom to not be forced by the government by way of paying draconian fines just because they decide to do their business under the form of a corporation,” Johnson said. “The Supreme Court was correct in establishing that the contraceptive mandate did not apply to them, which is very good news.”
In her dissent with the main opinion, Justice Ruth Ginsburg called the court’s decision one of “startling breadth” allowing commercial enterprises to “opt out of any law” except tax laws that they “judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Ginsburg, joined on its merits by Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, said she was “mindful of the havoc” the ruling could produce and noted that the court’s emphasis on RFRA failed to take into account the impact the decision would have on “third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith.” She said she believed the law was enacted by Congress “to serve a far less radical purpose.”
“Until today,” she wrote, religious exemptions have not been extended to the “commercial profit-making world” because these groups do not exist to foster the interests of those of the same faith, as religious organizations do. She also questioned why the court failed to make the distinction between a group’s members of diverse beliefs and members who share the same faith.
“The court’s determination that RFRA extends to for-profit corporations is bound to have untoward effects,” she said, adding that even though the court “attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom’s senior counsel, David Cortman, was quick to react to the decision.
“In its decision today, the Supreme Court affirmed that all Americans, including family business owners, must be free to live and work consistently with their beliefs without fear of punishment by the government,” Cortman said. “In a free and diverse society, we respect the freedom to live out our convictions. For the Hahns and the Greens, that means not being forced to participate in distributing potentially life-terminating drugs and devices.”
Conestoga Wood Specialties President and CEO Anthony Hahn also reacted to the court’s decision.
“We wholeheartedly affirm what the Supreme Court made clear today—that Americans don’t have to surrender their freedom when they open a family business,” Conestoga said. “All Americans, including family business owners, must be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of government punishment.”
MORE TO COME
— By Patricia Zapor, Catholic News Service.