WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a win for the religious liberty rights of business owners, in a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a right to religious expression, in addition to the already established right to political expression recognized by the Court in its 2010 ruling in Citizens United. In the consolidated cases of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell, the Supreme Court held that under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), closely held or family owned for-profit corporations headed by religious owners have the right to exercise their religious beliefs by refusing to provide coverage for contraceptive methods that are contrary to their religion.
Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood challenged the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that mandated that all for-profit companies offer insurance coverage for birth control for their employees, stating that they found the practice morally objectionable. The Court was explicit that the decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate provision of the bill, and does not cover other medical procedures under the Act. Additionally, though the Court held that corporations can be “persons” for the purpose of RFRA, the Court limited the designation to closely-held corporations and corporate owners, leaving the status of publicly traded corporations for another day.
“Providing a silver lining to the recent run of decisions granting corporations rights, the Supreme Court has finally recognized that small business owners also engage in sincere religious practices,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Political hype to the contrary, this particular case is not about whether one supports Obamacare or abortion, but whether we are going to preserve and abide by the First Amendment in its entirety—recognizing that its religious freedom clause carries as much weight as the right to free speech, assembly, press or redress—or whether we shall disembowel the whole thing by allowing it to be taken piecemeal as best suits the political climate of the day.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, business owners required to provide health insurance to employees are also required to cover birth control, although exceptions were made for non-profit corporations and religious institutions. Two for-profit corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, both owned by families with moral religious objections to the contraceptive mandate, mounted separate challenges to the law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit sided with Hobby Lobby, citing “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United,” while the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Conestoga’s rights were not violated.
In an amicus brief, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that defining the parameters in which corporate entities may operate is a matter to be settled by the States and those who govern those entities, noting that “states both enable and require corporations to make moral decisions and to engage in practices that result from those decisions.” Rutherford attorneys also pointed out that “the measure of moral action is motivation” and that the United States Supreme Court “regularly recognized that religious and secular conduct can co-exist in the same person.” Affiliate attorneys D. Alicia Hickok, Jason P. Gosselin, and Todd N. Hutchison with Drinker, Biddle & Reath assisted with advancing the Institute’s arguments before the Supreme Court.