Challenge to Contraception Mandate

ORAL ARGUMENTS. Protesters clash outside the Supreme Court on March 25.

Oral arguments in two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 25 focused on whether for-profit corporations have religious grounds to object to the new health care law’s requirement that most employers provide contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. Oral arguments lasted for 90 minutes, an extension of the usual 60 minutes, and the justices in their questions for the lawyers arguing the cases seemed divided on the issue.

The justices mediated a close inspection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which allows for religious exceptions to general laws in certain circumstances. The cases—Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius—made their way to the Supreme Court after federal appeals courts issued opposite rulings about the companies’ claims to a religious rights exemption to the contraceptive mandate of the health care law.


At issue is the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that most employers, including religious employers, provide employees coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and certain contraceptive drugs that some consider abortifacient, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services. Both secular businesses claim the contraceptive mandate violates the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and their religious liberty rights under R.F.R.A. The 1993 law says that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who noted that R.F.R.A. was passed overwhelmingly, with support from both political parties, said it would not have gained such support if Congress thought the law would confer religious rights on corporations.

Justice Elena Kagan said the arguments in favor of the companies’ religious rights could turn R.F.R.A. into something that would put “the entire U.S. code” under intense constitutional scrutiny for possible burdens to corporate religious rights. For example, she said, companies would be able to object on religious grounds to laws on sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave and child labor. In its court brief, the Obama administration argued that a ruling in favor of the businesses could undermine laws governing immunizations, Social Security taxes and minimum wages.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing vote in the case, asked how the government could require the family-owned companies in question to provide the mandated insurance contraception coverage when it had already offered exemptions and accommodations to other groups, but he also questioned whether giving primacy to the religious rights of employers would produce an unacceptable burden on the parallel rights of employees.

Supporters of the Obama administration’s position that the two for-profit companies should not be exempted from the mandate have argued that the businesses are claiming religious rights the Constitution gives to individuals, not to corporations.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., who presented the administration’s arguments, emphasized that if the courts allowed for-profit companies to deny mandated coverage, the employees would be denied benefits the government has decided they should have.

He repeatedly mentioned U.S. v. Lee, a Supreme Court ruling in 1982 that said an Amish employer could not be exempted from paying Social Security taxes for employees of his for-profit business.

Rulings in the two cases are expected to be handed down in June.

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Frank Bergen
4 years 9 months ago
In spite of the Supreme Court's Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings, I suspect most Americans recognize the difference between a corporation and a living, breathing human person. And both Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. are the former. The rights of these corporations should never be allowed to trump the rights of living, breathing human persons to health care in accord with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. If the National Conference of Catholic Bishops could get past its concern for its conception of sexual morality and stand up for human freedom against corporate objections to ACA's mandates, we'd be a bit closer to reasonableness and justice in our country's civil life.
4 years 9 months ago
The magic we live by: popes suited in infallibility, sovereign states, cold wars, songs without words, the list is long. Still there must be a limit to begging the assent of reason when it is faced with idiocy. Tell me, who can imagine a corporation with human rights. We ordinary people have never seen a corporation with an erection unless it was headed our way to lower wages and working conditions, and then we only spoke of a corporation's erection metaphoricaly, and only then to offer to do to it what it was attempting to do to us. No corporation has ever been found in a fox hole nor on its knees in prayer nor in the cold water tenement from which as a child in winter I carried bags of coal from the cellar. A corporation does not have a heart, nor a memory. It is human in only one way. It has an unending lust for profit which capitalism will satisfy on its knees, even by giving it an organ.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 9 months ago
One thing all the justices emphasized was that they were not ever going to rule on the sincerity of any religious belief, which means that anyone could claim to believe anything and try to use that to exempt themselves from some law or other. They also said that a significant issue is whether the government has a compelling interest in denying the right of (so far) an individual to do as he pleases based on his religious beliefs. They suggested that these corporations that claim to have consciences should be entitled to the same accommodation as The Little Sisters of the Poor. However, this was disconcerting to the lawyer for the plaintiffs who were not asking for that, since their interest was to attack the ACA not find a way to live with it.


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