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The Hobby Lobby Case: Contraception and Religious Freedom

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a 2014 Supreme Court case, will have an impact on current and future reproductive rights laws. On June 30, 2014, in a close 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided that closely held corporations can refuse to provide birth control coverage to their employees if doing so would violate the corporation's religious beliefs. Below, you’ll find an explanation of the background behind the case, the Court’s decision, and how the decision may affect both employers and employees.

How Did this Case Reach the Supreme Court?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed in 2010, mandated that health insurance cover birth control. One of the requirements was that employers must pay for insurance that will cover birth control for their employees. Some of these employers, such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, were strongly opposed to birth control, in particular the morning after pill, which prevents implantation of a fertilized egg.

Before the ACA, another famous Supreme Court case permitted the government to infringe on religious freedom if it was an incidental effect, such as part of a religious practice is against criminal law. This case, Employment Division v. Smith, involved two members of the Native American Church who used peyote as part of a religious ceremony and were dismissed from their employer for drug use. After this decision, religious rights lobbyists convinced Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). This Act ensured the government wouldn't burden people's ability to exercise their religion unless done to advance a compelling government interest.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in the Citizens United case that corporations can spend their money on campaigns like a private citizen. This was part of an ongoing trend in which corporations have been gaining legal rights comparable to actual human beings. Thus, Hobby Lobby argued that even as a corporation it has religious rights comparable to any American.

In September 2012, Hobby Lobby filed suit in federal court in Oklahoma based on its First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion right and the RFRA. The 10th Circuit Court ruled that Hobby Lobby was a person with religious freedom. Other federal courts upheld the federal government's contraceptive coverage rule. When there’s a difference in opinion between different federal Courts of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court often takes on a case to determine which view is constitutional and eliminate the discrepancy between regions. Sylvia Burwell was listed as petitioner in this Supreme Court case because she was the Secretary of Health and Human Services at the time of the decision.

What Did the Supreme Court Decide?

The Supreme Court made it clear that it didn't want to get into a debate about whether a religious belief is valid. The Court only chose to address whether a religious belief may trump a federal law, such as the ACA. In the Hobby Lobby case, the majority of justices decided the ACA does substantially burden the religious belief held by the Christian owners without a compelling enough government objective. As a result, the government must provide a religious exemption to corporations allowing them to refrain from providing birth control coverage to their employees on religious grounds, just as religious non-profits already have.

What is the Practical Effect of the Hobby Lobby Case?

Employee Perspective

Some employers may choose to stop providing birth control coverage for religious reasons. Essentially, female employees of these companies who use birth control to prevent pregnancy will have to pay for it out of their own pockets. This could lead to some employees forgoing purchasing birth control.

Employer Perspective

Employers who for religious reasons don't believe in birth control will have the freedom to deny their employees access to birth control that's paid for by the company insurers. This is true even if the employees have a different religious belief system that permits them to use birth control.

Another side effect is that some employers may discover that health insurance that doesn't cover birth control is less expensive. Some experts have noted that we may see a number of employers who are mandated to provide health insurance claim that they don’t support birth control for religious reasons, so that they can reap the insurance savings. However, this would only work for "closely held” corporations. Under the ruling, publicly traded companies, like Coca-Cola and Starbucks, can't claim their religious beliefs prevent them from providing employees birth control.

Legal Questions

The Affordable Care Act with its health insurance mandates and the birth control religious exemptions is a developing area of law. Health care law is a complicated area and changes regularly due to frequent shifts in federal law. For these reasons, if you have legal questions, it’s best to consult with an experienced health law attorney.

For example, if you are an employer who wants to know what you must provide your employees or how to get a religious exemption, you should contact an attorney. Conversely, if you’re an employee who’s concerned about the health care you receive through your employer, you may also want to contact your local legal aid office or employment attorney.

Next Steps
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