Government, Health Care, and Law

Closely held corporations win religious freedom

Supreme Court rules companies can decide issuance of birth control.

July 11, 2014
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The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby two weeks ago in the contraception coverage case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, saying that closely held companies have religious freedom.

In the 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court found the Affordable Care Act, in mandating that companies pay for insurance coverage for contraception, violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

According to the Court’s opinion, the mandate is not the least restrictive avenue the government could take to provide contraception coverage and therefore imposes an unnecessary burden on companies that believe the coverage violates their “sincerely held religious belief.”

Justice Samuel Alito delivered the majority opinion, joined by Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

“We must decide whether the challenged Health and Human Services regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do,” Alito wrote.

He noted the business owners in the case, which also included Conestoga Wood Specialties Store, a Pennsylvania manufacturer owned by a family of Mennonites, believe the ACA contraception mandate violated their religious freedom by forcing them to provide forms of contraception they believe cause abortions, which they morally oppose.

“There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives,” Alito wrote.

He pointed to the accommodation already in place for religiously affiliated nonprofit corporations such as hospitals and schools, which require insurance companies to provide contraception to those organizations’ employees at no cost to the employer. 

The accommodation requires religiously affiliated nonprofit corporations that object to providing contraception to sign a government form stating that fact. The insurance company is then required to provide the contraception at no cost to the employee.

Alito said the same accommodation could be used with for-profit companies holding similar religious objections.

He said Health and Human Services has “already devised and implemented a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious nonprofit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections to providing such coverage.”

During a White House press briefing following the Supreme Court’s decision, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the White House would “work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else.”

Locally, the decision is likely to impact the lawsuit filed by Kentwood-headquartered Autocam, a closely held family of companies that include Autocam Automotive and Autocam Medical.

The company lost its Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case regarding its objection to providing insurance coverage for employees that included contraception coverage. In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the lower court likely will reconsider its original decision.

“We are deeply grateful that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of those business owners whose sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit them from complying with the HHS mandate,” said John Kennedy, president and CEO of Autocam. “We anticipate that the court will follow its usual practice of remanding our case for reconsideration in light of its decision.”

Those who disagree with the Court’s decision, including dissenting Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, believe it has opened a Pandora’s box.

And, they may be right. 

The day after the decision, a group of religious leaders sent President Obama a letter requesting a religious exemption to his recent executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people citing sincerely held religious beliefs.

In an even more interesting twist, just days following the Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court granted Wheaton College, an evangelical college west of Chicago, an injunction against signing the government form, which the college said imposes on its religious freedom by facilitating the access to contraceptive methods it opposes.

Sotomayor delivered a dissenting opinion to the Wheaton College injunction, which was joined by Kagan and Bader Ginsburg.

“Wheaton has not stated a viable claim under RFRA. Its claim ignores that the provision of contraceptive coverage is triggered not by its completion of the self-certification form, but by federal law. … The accommodation is permissible under RFRA because it is the least restrictive means of furthering the Government’s compelling interests in public health and women’s well being. 

“Indeed, just earlier this week in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the Court described the accommodation as ‘a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious nonprofit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections to providing such coverage.’ 

“And the Court concluded that the accommodation ‘constitutes an alternative that achieves all of the government’s aims while providing greater respect for religious liberty.’ Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation to hold that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates RFRA as applied to closely held for-profit corporations, the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position.”

The Supreme Court will take up the Wheaton case in October. 

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