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The Hobby Lobby Case: Contraception and Religious Freedom

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case with major implications for current and future reproductive rights laws. In a close 5-4 decision, the Court decided in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. that closely held corporations can refuse to provide birth control coverage to their employees if doing so would violate the corporation's "sincerely held religious beliefs." Hobby Lobby had argued that their Christian faith precluded them from providing birth control as part of a larger health care benefits package.

Below, you’ll find an explanation of the background behind the Hobby Lobby case, its implications with regard to contraception and religious freedom, the Court’s decision, and how the it affects 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; it also may encourage some employees to switch employers and discourage others from seeking employment with such companies.

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.

But employers that refuse to cover birth control through their insurance plan may discover that it hurts their ability to attract and retain top talent.

Have You Been Impacted by the Hobby Lobby Case? Call an Attorney

The Hobby Lobby case defined how closely held corporations may cite religious beliefs as a reason to decline coverage of birth control for their employees' health care plans. If you believe your rights are being violated in any way, perhaps an ineligible company is declining contraceptive coverage, you may need legal advice. Contact a family law attorney near you today to learn more.

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