The Supreme Court finished its term with its usual dramatic flair with the release of the long-waited decision in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores (which is consolidated with Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius). The two cases represent a classic split in the circuits with the Tenth Circuit agreeing with Hobby Lobby as to the religious claims of the company while the Third Circuit ruled against such claims by Conestoga Wood Specialities Corp. The Court ruled that the Hobby Lobby does have religious rights, but limited the decision to closely-held corporations. Where Citizen’s United recognized that corporations have free speech rights like individuals, Hobby Lobby would do the same thing for religious rights. I will be running a column in the Los Angeles Times in the morning not just addressing this ruling but, once again, highlighting what I consider a far more important case that will be decided just a couple blocks away in the D.C. Circuit — Halbig v. Sebelius. I will be discussing the decisions today at CNN starting at 10 am and continuing to the discussion at 1 pm with Wolf Blitzer.
Hobby Lobby is a fascinating case involving the retail arts and craft chain founded by David Green and owned by his family, which also happen to be Evangelical Christians. The Greens actually do not object to all of the 20 forms of birth control under the ACA. However, they are religiously opposed to supplying four methods: morning-after pills Plan B and Ella as well as two kinds of inter-uterine devices (or IUDs). (The Conestoga company is smaller and owed by Hahn family, who are Mennonite Christians) At a running fine of $100 per employee, Hobby Lobby estimates that the federal mandate would cost it about $1.3 million a day, or roughly $475 million a year.
The religious beliefs of the family are formally integrated into their company: Green family members signed a formal commitment to run the stores according to Christian religious principles, including closing on Sunday, advertising their religious orientation. The company even plays religious music inside their stores.
The Greens challenged the provisions under the and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which imposes a high standard of strict scrutiny for the government to meet when a neutral law “substantially burden[s] a person’s exercise of religion”. (Note some amicus briefs suggest that the mandatory plan should also be barred for these purpose under the Establishment Clause). In 2013, United States District Court Judge Joe Heaton granted the company a temporary exemption from the contraceptive-providing mandate. (Conestoga directly raises free exercise arguments).
In an interesting wrinkle, an April article in Mother Jones alleged that Hobby Lobby’s employee retirement plan has more than $73M invested in mutual funds which include manufacturers of some fo the very contraception devices or drugs cited in the complaint.
The decision has sweeping application – well beyond these companies or the 49 for-profit corporations that have claimed such exemptions. The ruling addresses the very essence of a religious claim and the very essence of a corporate entity.
Closely-held corporations are not as limited as it might seem. I agree with Ginsberg that the implications are sweeping. The closely-held corporations represent a huge number of businesses. As I mentioned on CNN, the large corporations are the least likely to demand such exemptions. There are millions of family businesses that may not object not just to the ACA but renew objections to discrimination laws that force such businesses to serve same-sex weddings or engage in other activities that violate their religious beliefs. This is much like Heller and the recognition of individual gun rights. We are still working out the details on how far that goes years after the decision.
This is a major blow to the Administration which in the last ten days have been found to have violated the fourth amendment and privacy and then found to be in violation of the separation of powers and now found in violation of the first amendment and religious freedom.