The United States Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that First Amendment religious liberty rights apply to certain closely-held businesses as specified under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Companies like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, two of the businesses that brought the case, may not be forced to provide contraceptive and abortion services in violation of company leaders’ conscience. The majority opinion states, in part, that, “Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations . . . protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.”
Under RFRA, the federal government may not take any action that ‘substantially burdens’ the exercise of religion unless it is the least restrictive means of serving a ‘compelling government interest.’ The law was intentionally crafted in a way that included for-profit corporations.
The majority opinion points to the ‘accommodation’ that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has made for religious non-profits, whereby the organizations are permitted to opt-out of providing insurance coverage for morally objectionable services, but the government then provides those services through other means. “HHS has provided no reason why the same system cannot be made available when the owners of for-profit corporations have similar religious objections.”
Typical of the Roberts court, the ruling is narrowly crafted and leaves many broader questions about the contraceptive mandate and collective religious liberty unanswered. For example, having found that the HHS mandate violates RFRA, the court did not even address the underlying First Amendment issues in play. Thus, Congress need only repeal or amend the RFRA if they wish to send this all back into the courts again. In addition, the ruling applies only to ‘closely held’ corporations owned by religious individuals, specifically excluding large, publicly held corporations. And finally, the court does not address the constitutionality of the aforementioned ‘accommodation,’ which is being challenged in other cases working their way through the system.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. Kennedy also filed a separate concurring opinion. A dissenting opinion was filed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred with all but one part of Ginsburg’s opinion.