To no one’s surprise, the Supreme Court announced today that it will be deciding the legality of the ACA’s provision regarding insurance coverage for contraception, which opponents claim violates the religious liberty of for-profit corporations and their owners. The Court will be hearing two cases together: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. We will be hearing and reading a lot about these cases in the next few months.
At issue is whether the law violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Under RFRA, a federal law is invalid if it imposes a substantial burden on religious liberty, unless it is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling government interest. (This law was passed in 1993 to recreate the substantial scrutiny laws had faced under the Free Exercise Clause until the Supreme Court altered the test in 1990.)
Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts chain store with 500 stores and 13,000 full-time employees. The Green family who own and operate Hobby Lobby also do business through a corporation called Mardel, a for-profit business operating 35 Christian bookstores with almost 400 employees. The Greens and their corporations argue that the contraception coverage provision poses a substantial burden on their religious liberty in violation of RFRA.
Perhaps the most dramatic claim made in these cases is that for-profit corporations operating hundreds of stores and with thousands of employees have religious liberty interests at all. That’s what the Tenth Circuit ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, citing Citizens United, and concluding that the mandate fails under RFRA.
The claim that for-profit corporations have religious rights was rejected by the Third Circuit in the Conestoga Wood Specialties case. That court also ruled that the corporation’s family owners don’t suffer a religious liberty violation because the law’s coverage requirement and the financial penalty for noncompliance fall not upon them as individuals, but upon the corporation. According to the lower court, since they chose to engage in business using the corporate form, accepting all the financial benefits that brings, they cannot “move freely between corporate and individual status to gain the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the respective forms.”
It now appears that the Supreme Court will make important rulings on the religious liberty interests of both for-profit businesses and the individuals who own them.
People can and do disagree on the interplay between individuals’ religious liberty and general laws that go against people’s religious beliefs. PFAW Foundation’s “Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics” addresses this debate. Government does have the right to demand people and businesses comply with reasonable regulation and social policy, while at the same time, religious liberty is a key constitutional right. The debate over their interplay should be held in a way that does not devolve into claims of a “war against religion,” which we hear all too often from the far right.
As far as corporate religion is concerned, the five arch-conservative justices who gave us Citizens United and who routinely bend the law to favor corporate interests may see this as an opportunity to strike another blow for “corporate personhood” and against the workers who the ACA is designed to protect.