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Date: 11-26-2013

Case Style:

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Case Number: 573 U.S. 682

Judge: Alito, Roberts, SCalia, Kennedy, ThomasWhether the right to free exercise of religion, as envisioned by RFRA and RLUIPA, extends to for-profit businesses as well as non-profit organizations

Court: United States Supreme Court

Plaintiff's Attorney: Paul D. Clement

Defendant's Attorney: Donald Verrilli, Jr.

Description: David Green, a wealthy Evangelical Christian, founded and operated an arts and crafts company known as Hobby Lobby. One of his sons, Mart, operated a company known as Mardel Christian and Educational Supply. Until 2012, Green provided health insurance coverage for contraceptives to the women among the 21,000 employees of Hobby Lobby. However, his religious views led to Hobby Lobby becoming the leading supporter of the National Christian Charitable Foundation, which funds conservative political groups. Green and his family felt that contraception was immoral because they believed that life begins at the time of a woman's fertilization. As a result, they challenged a new requirement under federal law that their company provide health insurance coverage for emergency contraceptive pills (Plan B and Ella) and intrauterine devices (ParaGard, Mirena, and Skyla) to their female employees. All of these contraceptives were approved by the FDA, but the Greens argued that a for-profit family business should not be forced to fund the use of devices that were contrary to their anti-abortion beliefs.

Meanwhile, the Hahn family owned a furniture company called Conestoga Wood Specialties. Due to their Mennonite beliefs, the Hahns resisted providing contraceptives to the women in their staff of about 1,000 employees. This case was consolidated with the Hobby Lobby case, as was a similar challenge involving Mardel.

These cases lay at the intersection of the First Amendment and three recent federal laws. In 2000, Congress had passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which expanded the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). This law required the Court to apply the strictest standard of review to laws that interfered with any exercise of religion, whether or not it was central to a system of religious belief. (Congress was responding to the relatively lenient level of scrutiny used by Justice Antonin Scalia in Smith.) While RLUIPA stood on dubious ground with regard to the states, the Court had found that it was constitutional with regard to federal laws.

The federal law challenged in this case was the Affordable Care Act (ACA), by which the administration of President Barack Obama had revolutionized the American health care system. Part of this 2010 law gave authority to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to determine what employers would be required to cover in the area of contraceptives and other preventive care for women. HHS and its subordinate agency, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), decided that religious employers, non-profit organizations that oppose contraception, employers with fewer than 50 employees, and a few other narrowly defined types of businesses did not need to provide coverage in this area. However, they imposed coverage requirements on all other employers for all 20 contraceptives that were approved by the FDA. To facilitate compliance, HRSA fined companies $100 per day per individual whose coverage was withheld. It also offered the alternative of paying higher wages and a tax.

Arguing that the actions of HRSA and HHS under the ACA were invalid under RFRA, RLUIPA, and the First Amendment, Hobby Lobby sought to have an injunction against its enforcement as applied to its employees. The Greens initially were denied a preliminary injunction, but the Tenth Circuit ruled that they were covered by RLUIPA and sent the case back to the lower court to grant a preliminary injunction. Other circuits were divided as to whether closely held for-profit businesses with religious beliefs had the right to withhold coverage for contraceptives from female employees.

Outcome: The right to free exercise of religion, as envisioned by RFRA and RLUIPA, extends to for-profit businesses as well as non-profit organizations.

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