June 30, 2014

The Hobby Lobby decision and the future of religious-liberty rights

Demonstrators embrace as they react to hearing the Supreme Court's decision on the Hobby Lobby case outside the Supreme Court in Washington.
Demonstrators embrace as they react to hearing the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby case. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Supreme Court today expanded the scope of religious-liberty rights and dealt a blow to part of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul when it ruled 5-4 that some for-profit businesses have religious rights and, as a result, can opt out of the law’s contraception mandate. But the ruling, while important, is limited because it applies only to smaller, closely held businesses and specifically warns against companies using religious-liberty claims to discriminate.

The cases – Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Products v. Burwell– stem from regulations arising from the Affordable Care Act (also called Obamacare) that require many employers to include free coverage for contraceptive services in their employees’ health insurance plans. While the regulations entirely exempt churches and provide religiously affiliated nonprofits, such as hospitals and charities, with an alternative for ensuring that their employees are covered, they do not extend to for-profit employers.

The owners of a number of these businesses sued the federal government, claiming that that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act entitles them to relief from the mandate based on their religious objections to some forms of contraception. RFRA directs courts to exempt any party who can show that the challenged law or government action substantially burdens his or her religious practice, unless the government shows that the law in question advances a compelling state interest and that such an interest cannot be advanced without burdening the person’s religious rights.

In its decision, the high court agreed with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, ruling that “closely held” corporations should be accorded religious-liberty rights and are covered by RFRA. The court said that although it was willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that the federal government has a compelling interest in providing women with free contraception, the government failed to prove that it can only advance this interest in a way that burdens companies’ religious-liberty rights.

Indeed, the court said, the government could easily accommodate these and similar businesses and still provide these companies’ female employees with free contraception by simply extending to for-profit businesses the alternative it has offered to religiously affiliated nonprofit employers such as religious hospitals, schools and charities. This alternative allows employers to opt out of contraception coverage and requires health insurers in these cases to offer female employees free contraception through a separate policy.

While the court handed advocates for religious accommodation a major victory, it also took pains to draw some lines around the decision. First, the majority limited the ruling to closelyheld companies in which a small group of individuals not only own the entity but are deeply involved in its governance and operation. The justices specifically stated that the decision does not apply to publicly held corporations. In addition, the majority made clear that this ruling does not give employers license to discriminate against racial and other minority groups in employment or in the provision of goods and services.

The Hobby Lobby decision does not represent a radical change in religious-liberty law – even as it applies to for-profit businesses. The fact that the ruling is limited to closely held companies, and that the majority specifically warns against the future use of religious-liberty claims by businesses to justify discrimination, means that the decision could have a limited impact in future cases involving businesses and questions of religious rights.

At the same time, it is unclear how this ruling could influence a series of other cases (that could reach the high court as early as next year) involving religiously affiliated nonprofits. These organizations are challenging the contraception mandate, even though the Obama administration crafted an alternative allowing them to opt out of directly providing free contraception.

While the court recommended the use of this option in the case of for-profit companies, it did so without knowing whether Hobby Lobby would be satisfied using this alternative. Since the nonprofits contend that their religious liberty rights are burdened even with the opt-out alternative, today’s decision does not necessarily mean that the justices would find it sufficient for these nonprofits, even if Hobby Lobby and other businesses are amendable to using it.

An April survey taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans (55%) believed that for-profit businesses should provide free contraception to their employees, even if doing so violates the personal religious beliefs of a company’s owners. Among women, support for employer-provided birth control was slightly higher  at 61%.

Topics: Supreme Court, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Social Values

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. David R.(Canada)3 years ago

    Hobby Lobby and many other corporations do not have a problem with paying for birth control. As a matter of fact, Hobby Lobby already pays for most methods of birth control for their female employees.
    Their problem is with having to pay for abortion, including the “morning after’ pill.
    Nowhere in the above article is abortion even mentioned. The closest it came to it was in the statement that they have objections “to some forms of contraception”.
    How can Pew Research be taken seriously when they are so biased on this issue?
    When Pew is unable to use clear, unambiguous language it makes me wonder if they use “loaded” words and expressions in their surveys to get the answers that they really want.

    This is my first time on this site and I am not impressed.

    1. Rachel3 years ago

      That argument might be more valid if in fact Hobby Lobby did not invest in the companies that make the birth control and if the morning after pill actually did cause abortions… they don’t work like that. They work in one of three ways:
      •It could kill all of the sperm after ejaculation.
      •It could prevent the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.
      •It could either prevent or delay the release of the egg.
      In all of these cases it is about PREVENTING and are classified by the FDA as a contraceptive. The contraceptive they are trying to not pay for is not an abortion pill.

  2. dave3 years ago

    Sorry,I just don’t get this one. So,it’s a violation of Hobby Lobbys religious liberties toprovide insurance that covers birth control,(even though it is the employees who pay the premiums,for the most part) but it’s okay for them to shove their religious beliefs down the throats of employees who may not share them? Employers provide the policies,and in this day and age of cheapskate employers,it is unlikely they contribute anything to pay for it. It is all on the workers.(comes out of their pre tax paychecks) Let’s say an employee pays a hundred a month in premiums,for the sake of argument. Of that one hundred dollars,or $1,200 a year,only $6.00 of it goes for contraception coverage. We pay a lot more than that to our cable providers,for stations we never watch,for features on our cell phones e never use,clothing we never wear,or produce that sits and rots in the fridge. Plus if a woman does not believe in birth control,nobody is forcing her to use that part of the policy. Plus,contraceptives are used for many more things than just preventing pregnancy. Preventing pregnancy is NOT abortion. Abortion is abortion. Contraception is our number one weapon to reduce abortion demand. No unwanted or unplanned pregnancies,NO NEED FOR ABORTION!! DUH!!!

    1. Seth Lepsy3 years ago

      1. These “cheapskate employers” were already providing health insurance to their employees before the ACA.
      2. The objection is not to all contraceptives, only for those considered to be “abortive.”
      3. No one is “shoving their religious beliefs down somebody’s throat” by refusing to participate in something they view quite literally as taking a human life. Refusal to be complicit in an act is a passive form of protest. If they went to some length to prevent the woman from pursuing her “family planning” goal in a different avenue, that would be considered an aggressive form of protest, and you would be justified in using the afore-quoted expression.

  3. David Stout3 years ago

    “Kaiser Family Foundation found 55% believe for-profit businesses should provide free contraception to employees, even if doing so violates the personal religious beliefs” – That’s not the right question. Unlike churches and religious non-profits this wasn’t an objection based on believing contraception is wrong. Much media coverage gives that impression, but it’s wrong. The objection is to birth control that would prevent implantation and result in embryo death. Pro-choicers consider that contraception but pro-lifers call it abortifacient (and technically the accurate term is contragestive). Most birth control use in America is hormonal contraception which wasn’t at issue here. There’s no religious objection to contraception raised by for profit corporations, but an objection to embryo destruction. Ethically this is like questions about stem cell research and not contraception.

  4. Marie3 years ago

    ” This alternative allows employers to opt out of contraception coverage and requires health insurers in these cases to offer female employees free contraception through a separate policy.”

    Somebody still has to pay – does the government expect the insurance companies to absorb the costs?
    And what about the organizations that self-insure. There is no “somebody else” to pay for the contraceptives.

    1. David R.(Canada)3 years ago

      I agree someone has to pay.
      Well, how about the person actually wanting the contraception? If they’re an adult they should pay for their own wants and needs instead of expecting or even forcing someone else to pay for it.
      Grow up and take responsibility for your own life.