On June 30, 2014, the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in Burwell et al. v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al. that has triggered a tidal wave of responses and opinions. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), an employer’s group health plan must provide employees with “preventative care and screening,” which generally includes 20 forms of birth control approved by the FDA. Religious employers, such as Churches, are generally exempt from this mandate, as well as objecting religious non-profit organizations. However in Hobby Lobby the Court was presented with closely-held for-profit corporations whose owners have religious objections to this contraceptive mandate. In a surprising move, the Supreme Court ultimately held that such corporations are exempt from the contraceptive mandate because it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). In other words, corporations such as Hobby Lobby, whose owners have religious objections to providing coverage for all 20 forms of contraception, are exempt from the regulation that otherwise would require them to do so.
Many people have addressed this issue in the context of birth control and it’s implication for women’s rights, a debate which has been ongoing for some time. Though this is a significant concern that I could certainly go on about, this decision has far reaching implications that greatly exceed that limited issue. This is not just about contraception – it is about the ability of a corporation to argue that they are exempt from any law that they claim to be contrary to the owner’s religious beliefs. Not only does this fail to take into account the religious beliefs of the tens, hundreds or thousands of people who may also be part of this corporation, but it creates the possibility that corporations become exempt from any number of different laws and regulations. The Court tries to avoid this “slippery slope” by stating that their opinion is limited to the contraception mandate and that there may be competing interests at stake when evaluating other regulations. But this decision undoubtedly opens the door for corporations to argue that they should be exempt from laws, and puts the Court in the improper position of having to evaluate the merits of different religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg notes in her dissent, “[t]he Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”
There are already efforts being made to address the decision in Hobby Lobby. Senate Democrats introduced the “Not My Boss’ Business Act” in order to counteract the ruling and ensure contraceptive coverage for women who are employed by corporations with religious objections. But just days ago, this failed to pass the vote to advance this legislation. I expect that this will remain a hot-button issue that we will continue to see shape the political landscape in the coming months.
Photo Credit: Nicholas Eckhart