Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Following is the case brief for Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014)

Case Summary of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.:

  • Several for-profit, closely held companies, including Hobby Lobby, complained that the ACA’s requirement that for-profit employers provide insurance for contraceptives for their female employees infringed on their companies’ First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion.
  • The Third and Tenth Circuit Courts split on whether for-profit companies have a First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Tenth Circuit that for-profit companies have the right to freely exercise their religion.  Therefore, for-profit companies do not have to follow the government’s contraceptive requirement.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) required employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives to their employees.  In enforcing the ACA, the Department of Health and Human Services exempted certain organizations – namely religious non-profit organizations – from the contraceptive requirement.

David Green is the founder of Hobby Lobby Stores; Green’s son Mart operated Mardel Christian and Educational Supply; and the Hahn family owned Conestoga Wood Specialties.  Those three corporate owners had a religious objection to abortion and contraceptives.  Therefore, they sued the federal government, claiming that they should not be forced to provide coverage for contraceptives to their employees because they – the corporation owners – had a religious objection.   Green and company cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to support their position.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court handling the Hahn family case denied a preliminary injunction, and the Third Circuit affirmed, finding that a for-profit corporation cannot engage in religious exercise.
  • The District Court handling the Hobby Lobby and Mardel cases also denied a preliminary injunction.  However, the Tenth Circuit reversed, finding that the businesses are “persons” under RFRA, and that the contraceptive requirement substantially burdened their free exercise of religion.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the contraceptive mandate violate RFRA as applied to for-profit, closely held corporations?  Yes.

Judgment:

The Third Circuit decision is reversed, and the Tenth Circuit decision is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The free exercise of religion applies to both for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations.

Reasoning:

The decision of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to require contraceptive coverage for employees must be strictly scrutinized under RLUIPA.  Under that standard the contraceptive requirement was not the least restrictive means to meet a compelling governmental interest.

The fact that HHS created an exemption for non-profit organizations that hold conservative beliefs is the lynchpin of this case.  There is (according to the five justice majority) no difference between a non-profit organization and a for-profit organization in terms of the free exercise of the organization’s religious beliefs.  Because for-profit organizations support charities, those businesses have goals beyond maximizing profits.

Thus, companies should not be forced to compromise their own morality by allowing their employees to have contraceptives, which the heads of the company believe are immoral.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Kennedy):

HHS should have found a less restrictive way to incentivize employers to provide health care coverage, including contraceptives.

Dissenting Opinion (Ginsburg):

First, the Court in this case deviated from precedent.  In the past, corporations were often called upon to comply with laws that conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Second, there is a massive difference between for-profit companies and non-profit organizations.  Typically, a non-profit organization is unified by a religious core principle or religion.  For-profit companies – such as an arts and crafts retail store – employ people with myriad points of view and religious beliefs.

Third, the Court applied a standard that was stricter than what the RLUIPA required.

Finally, there should be a debate over whether the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause even applies to artificially created entities, such as a for-profit corporation.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer & Kagan):

The case could have been decided in favor of HHS on the merits, as enunciated in the first part of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent.  Therefore, it is unnecessary to consider the question of whether for-profit businesses are different from non-profit organizations.

Significance:

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is a significant decision because it supports the notion that a for-profit corporation can have religious beliefs that can be imposed on their employees, to their employees’ detriment.  What is important to note is that the Court’s decision validates a for-profit company owner’s religious beliefs, while doing actual, practical harm to the lives of the employees who may not share the religious beliefs of the owners.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Opinion – Full Text

Listen to the Oral Argument

Helpful summary of opinion from the New York Times

 

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