Recent Developments in the Courts - Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Ruling
November 19, 2014
The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employer in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. by prohibiting the federal government from substantially burdening closely held corporations by requiring them to provide coverage for what the owners consider to be abortion services. The Court found that closely held corporations cannot be required to offer contraceptive coverage as part of its health plans provided to employees when the owners of the company hold sincere religious beliefs opposing those contraceptives.
The five-four decision held that the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) regulations mandating that the cost of contraceptives be covered by health insurance for certain entities violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"). See Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, § 3(b), 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000bb-1(b). Presently, there are 20 FDA approved contraceptive methods, ranging from oral contraceptives to surgical sterilization. Out of the 20 methods, four of those methods work by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb.
RFRA prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on a person's ability to practice his religion unless that burden advances an important government interest and advances that interest in the least restrictive way possible. Accordingly, in order for the HHS mandate to survive, the government had the burden to show (1) that Hobby Lobby is a "person" under RFRA; (2) the regulations served a compelling government interest; and (3) the regulations were the least restrictive means to achieving its interest of guaranteeing cost-free access to birth control.
The majority held that (1) for-profit, closely held corporations are "persons" under RFRA; (2) the mandate placed a substantial burden on the religious freedom of the entities seeking exemption; and (3) although free access to the four forms of contraceptive was a matter of compelling interest to the government, the coverage mandate was not the least restrictive means of achieving that goal. The Court noted the government could simply give the same exception used for non-profit organizations to for-profit closely held organizations such as Hobby Lobby. Burwell at 2757-8.