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.