Supreme Court to Decide If Corporations' Religious Beliefs Trump Americans' Access to Medication

By Brown, Simon | Church & State, May 2014 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court to Decide If Corporations' Religious Beliefs Trump Americans' Access to Medication


Brown, Simon, Church & State


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At times, the atmosphere inside the U.S. Supreme Court March 25 was surreal.

The court, starkly divided along gender lines, spent 90 minutes hearing oral arguments in a case challenging an issue most Americans thought had been laid to rest long ago: access to birth control.

The new challenge to contraceptives comes wrapped in an unusual cloak. Religious conservatives are asserting that the doctrine of religious freedom, as spelled out by a 1993 law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), gives the owners of secular, for-profit corporations the right to ignore a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that requires most employers to include no-cost birth control in employee health-care plans.

Furthermore, secular, for-profit corporations are like people: They can practice religion.

The debate in the pair of cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, attracted a lot of media attention and a host of protestors on both sides outside the court on an unseasonably cold and snowy day in Washington, D.C.

Inside the court, temperatures ran a little higher.

"[T]his was a law that was passed overwhelmingly, both houses of Congress," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said at one point. "People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would be tremendous uniformity if it means ... to cover profit corporations, especially in light of ... a specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that. [T]hat amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions."

Ginsburg wasn't the only justice expressing skepticism. Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general who argued the case for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, had barely started talking before Justice Sonia Sotomayor cut him off. Sotomayor wanted to know what would stop companies from denying vaccinations for children or blood transfusions on religious grounds.

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Justice Elena Kagan ran with the idea, also pressing Clement by pointing out that there are many medical treatments opposed by various religious groups.

The three women on the high court were vocal-but so were their male counterparts, most of whom took a much more sympathetic view of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood's case. At the end of the hour and a half, all most observers could say was that the decision will be close.

The spirited nature of the argument indicates that the radical redefinition of religious liberty sought by Hobby Lobby and its conservative allies is not going to come without a complex legal fight.

The justices indicated during the oral argument that they have many issues to consider before they decide this case, including what Congress intended when it passed RFRA, whether for-profit corporations exercise religion, what constitutes a religious enterprise and how the religious beliefs of business owners can be reconciled with the rights of their employees.

RFRA, the statute at the center of the case, says that the federal government cannot substantially burden someone's exercise of religion without a compelling interest for doing so. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood both claim that RFRA shields them from the birth-control mandate, because providing contraceptives to employees at no cost is not important enough to justify the violation of their owners' religious beliefs.

During the oral argument, Clement asserted that the government can't prove it has a compelling interest when it has already exempted organizations, such as churches, from the mandate.

Notably, RFRA passed the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously and the U.S. Senate by a vote of 97-3. Ginsburg was struck by this near unanimity of support, and pointed out that in all likelihood, Congress wouldn't have passed RFRA had it known that it would be used to give corporations carte blanche to ignore various laws. …

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