30 June 2014

Law in Plain English: Obamacare contraceptive mandate cases

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblog: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (consolidated with Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell)

Argument: Mar 25 2014 (Aud.)

Discussion: Hobby Lobby and Mardel (a craft store chain and a Christian bookstore chain, respectively) and Conestoga Wood Specialties (a manufacturer of wood cabinets) brought actions challenging an Affordable Care Act regulation that requires them to provide certain contraceptive services as a part of their employer-sponsored health care plan. Among these services are drugs and devices that the employers believe to be abortifacients, the use of which is contrary to their faith. The employers grounded their claims in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law aimed at preventing laws that substantially burden a person's free exercise of their religion. The Tenth Circuit ruled that Hobby Lobby and Mardel were "Persons Exercising Religion" Under RFRA, and thus entitled to bring their claims. On the other hand, the Third Circuit ruled that for-profit, secular corporations like Conestoga Wood Specialties could not engage in religious exercise, and as a result, were not entitled to protection under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the RFRA.

Issue: The question before the Court in Hobby Lobby is whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb et seq., which provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest, allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.

The question before the Court in Conestoga Wood Specialties is whether the religious owners of a family business, or their closely held, for-profit corporation, have free exercise rights that are violated by the application of the contraceptive-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

Holding: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that, as applied to closely held corporations, the HHS regulations implementing the contraception mandate violate the RFRA. It is important to note the distinction that the holding in this case does not apply to all corporations, just those that are defined as closely-held. The IRS defines a closely-held corporation as one in which more than 50% of the value of its outstanding stock owned (directly or indirectly) by 5 or fewer individuals at any time during the last half of the tax year; and is not a personal service corporation.
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