Crafting Enhanced Rights for the Religious Business Owner: An Examination of the Supreme Court Decision in Hobby Lobby

By Morgan, James F. | Labor Law Journal, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Crafting Enhanced Rights for the Religious Business Owner: An Examination of the Supreme Court Decision in Hobby Lobby


Morgan, James F., Labor Law Journal


Introduction

One of the most anticipated decisions of the 2013-14 term of the United States Supreme Court involved the confluence of two controversial federal statutes: (1) the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 ("ACA")1 and (2) the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 ("RFRA").2 The joint cases of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. Burwell (for this article combined under the name Hobby Lobby)5 presented to the Court the question whether closely held businesses and their owners may use a provision of the RFRA as a valid reason for refusing to comply with an administrative regulation promulgated under the ACA requiring businesses to offer certain contraceptives in their self-funded health plan that offend the religious beliefs of the owners of the businesses.

In a 5-4 ruling, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the entities in Hobby Lobby possessed religious liberty rights under the RFRA and further found those rights were violated. The majority opinion rejected the arguments asserted by the government that owners of for-profit entities were separate from corporations for all purposes and that for-profit corporations, by their nature, could not exercise religious rights. The rationale of the Court, however, limited the application of these statutorily-created rights to cases where the corporation was owned by a family or was otherwise closely held. A vigorous dissenting opinion portended dire consequences would flow from the Courts decision, including the probability that large corporations would attempt to seek a shield from compliance with various types of legal mandates, businesses of all sizes would create havoc in the courts by filing cases under a religious banner when such a connection is tenuous at best, and women woman would lose access to critical health care services.

Given that the issues addressed in Hobby Lobby are complex and laden with emotion, the majority, concurring, and two dissenting opinions deserve careful consideration. Moreover, a close reading of the Hobby Lobby case suggests its immediate impact will have a much more limited effect on the social, political, and business environments than has been suggested by opponents of the Court's decision. However, what the Hobby Lobby decision portends for those businesses wishing to express religious liberty interests and those individuals and entities impacted by such expressions in the future is far less certain.

This article first examines preliminary matters associated with the Hobby Lobby case in order to establish a context for the Court's decision. The majority opinion, concurring opinion, and two dissenting opinions are then presented and analyzed. Doctrinal, precedential, and practical aspects of the decisions are covered. This article concludes with reflections on selected potential implications flowing from the decision of the Court. Although the implications of the Hobby Lobby decision will serve as fodder for discussion within legal, religious, and academic circles for years if not decades to come, there is little debate that the Court's approach provides a means for religious beliefs and practices to become more prominent in the world of commerce.

Preliminary Matters

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

The ACA generally requires employers with more than 50 full-time employees to offer a group plan or insurance providing minimum coverage as defined by law.4 Failure to provide such coverage results in the employer being subject to a fine of $100 per day for each employee.5 Should the employer decide to stop offering health insurance, the ACA requires the employer to pay $2000 per year for each employee who qualifies for one of the government-run ACA exchanges.6

Generally, the ACA mandates coverage for "preventative care and screenings" for women without "any cost sharing."7 Given the sensitive nature of the subject, Congress did not provide what specific types of preventative care must covered by a plan. …

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