Today in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed religious freedom rights of owners of closely held businesses such as those owned by the Green and Hahn families. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court granted relief to the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, holding that they are not required to violate their sincerely held beliefs by providing coverage for abortifacient drugs and services.
“The Court has affirmed the rights of family business owners to exercise their religious beliefs and convictions,” comments Dana Cody, President and Executive Director of Life Legal Defense Foundation. “LLDF has argued from the beginning that there is no compelling governmental interest to justify coercing business owners into violating their sincere beliefs in the sanctity of human life. While this decision is a blow to ‘contraceptive mandate,’ there are still unanswered questions about the mandate itself and the adequacy of the accommodations for religious employers, but this is a win for religious freedom. Congratulations to the Green family and the Hahn family on this historic victory!”
In its decision, the Court determined that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to closely held corporations, such as those held by the Green and Hahn families, and it held that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the plaintiffs’ right to religious freedom.
The Court then considered whether this substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ religious freedom rights is justified because it furthers a compelling governmental interest. In considering this, the Court did not rule directly on whether the government’s asserted interest in providing contraceptive coverage without co-pay was a compelling interest (LLDF’s amicus brief argued vigorously that it is not). Instead, the Court held that there are other, less-restrictive means of achieving the Government’s asserted interest.
From the majority opinion by Justice Alito:
We find it unnecessary to adjudicate this issue. We will assume that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods is compelling within the meaning of RFRA, and we will proceed to consider the final prong of the RFRA test, i.e., whether HHS has shown that the contraceptive mandate is “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
By this ruling, the Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires the government to provide closely held corporations who object to the mandate the same accommodation it already provides nonprofit organization objectors. In so doing the Court, affirmed the decision of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals while reversing the 3rd Circuit.
The opinion leaves open the question of whether the “accommodation” provided for religious non-profits is sufficient to protect their rights to religious freedom. Many nonprofits would argue that the “accommodation” itself is a substantial burden on their religious freedom.
For more background see The Future of Religious Freedom at the Supreme Court