What’s the Big Deal with the Hobby Lobby Case? Part I

ContraceptiveIf you’ve been following the news, or your Facebook or Twitter feed at all in the last 24 hours, you’ve likely been bombarded by stories and posts (and rants) praising the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case or declaring it to be the end of the world. Needless to say, you probably haven’t seen too many completely neutral posts. And all of these posts may leave you wondering, “What’s the big deal anyways?”

In a 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al., the Court held that, as applied to closely-held corporations with religious objections, the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA” and otherwise known as “Obama Care”) violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). 573 U.S. __, at *49 (2014). In other words, such corporations can provide contraceptive coverge under the ACA, but are not required to. To break that down a bit: First, the Hobby Lobby case is actually two cases that raise the same issues, so the Court decided them at the same time. Both cases involve closely-held private corporations that “have sincere Christian beliefs that life begins at conception and that it would violate their religion to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devises that operate after that point.” Id., Syllabus at 7. (Syllabus). The ACA includes coverage for 20 contraceptives approved by the FDA, including four methods (two types of the “morning after pill” and two types of IUDs) that Hobby Lobby believes can cause abortions. Id. at *8. Hobby Lobby objected to providing insurance coverage for those four contraceptives, because it alleged that forcing it to provide coverage violated its First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Id. at **11-16.

The Court agreed. The Court’s decision is significant, and particularly objectionable to some, because for the Court to find that the contraceptive mandate violates these corporations’ free exercise rights, the Court had to find that the corporations actually had free exercise rights. The Court held that they are “persons” under RFRA, and that because “[a] corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends[,]” a privately-held corporation is capable of exercising religious beliefs. Id. at *18. The Court then analyzed whether the contraceptive mandate “substantially burdened” corporations’ free exercise of religion. If it did, the government had to show that the mandate served a “compelling interest” that could not be achieved by any less restrictive means.

Because corporations can be heavily penalized for not complying with the ACA, the Court reasoned that the amount of money corporations would have to pay for not providing the contraceptive coverage was a substantial burden. Id. at *32. And while the Court conceded that the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and providing access to preventative healthcare for women is a compelling interest, the government did not meet its burden to show that the contraceptive mandate was the least restrictive way to meet that compelling interest. Because the ACA includes some exemptions for certain types of companies—including non-profits with a religious objective—the Court reasoned that the same type of exemption can apply to privately held corporations. In other words, the government and insurance companies can just pick up the tab. Id. at **39-43.
If you want to read the opinion yourself, you can find it here.

Check back tomorrow to read about Justice Ginsburg’s fiery 35 page dissent!


Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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