The Hobby Lobby Case: Contraception and Religious Freedom

Hobby Lobby initiated the case based on religious objections. The company's owners argued providing birth control was against their Christian faith.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.a case with a massive effect on reproductive rights. In a 5-4 opinion, the Court decided that closely held corporations could refuse to cover employee birth control.

The groundbreaking decision established that some corporations can have "sincerely held religious beliefs." And requiring them to provide birth control as part of a health insurance package violated federal law.

Below is an explanation of the Hobby Lobby case, a summary of the Court's decision, and how it affects employers and employees.

Background: How Did This Case Reach the Supreme Court?

Two important Supreme Court decisions and the passage of the Affordable Care Act set the stage for Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Previous Supreme Court Decisions

In 1990, the Supreme Court decided another important religious freedom case, Employment Division v. Smith. This case involved two members of the Native American Church who lost their jobs due to drug use after they used peyote as part of a religious ceremony.

The Supreme Court held that the government has an interest in regulating substances like peyote. So it could burden religious liberty if only incidental to that interest. The federal government could outlaw peyote. But it could only do so as long as it wasn't done to discriminate against Native religious practices.

Around the same time, lobbyists convinced Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). This Act required a "compelling" government interest to justify burdens on the exercise of religion. This set a higher bar than the standard laid out in Smith.

Then in 2010, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United. There, the Court removed restrictions on money corporations spend on political campaigns. This was part of an ongoing trend to grant corporations similar legal rights to actual human beings.

Birth Control Mandate Under the ACA

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, including a “contraceptive mandate." This meant health insurance coverage was required to include birth control. This included insurance packages provided by employers.

Some employers strongly opposed birth control, especially emergency contraception like Plan B.

In September 2012, Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma against the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The craft store company claimed the contraception mandate violated the First Amendment and the RFRA. Hobby Lobby argued that corporations have religious rights comparable to any American. Conestoga Wood Specialties, a family-owned furniture business in Pennsylvania, filed a similar lawsuit.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Hobby Lobby was a "person" entitled to the free exercise of religion. But the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the contraceptive coverage rule in Conestoga Woods' case. They reasoned that a for-profit corporation could not "engage in religious exercise."

When different federal Courts of Appeals disagree, the U.S. Supreme Court exercises judicial review. The Supreme Court decides which view aligns with the Constitution, and that rule becomes the law of the land.

The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Decision

The case began in 2012, and Hobby Lobby is a chain of retail stores. That year, the chain filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. In the lawsuit, Hobby Lobby challenged the enforcement of the contraception rule under the Affordable Care Act. This rule required coverage for contraception methods in employer-provided insurance plans.

Hobby Lobby claimed the following protected employers' rights to deny contraception coverage:

  • The RFRA
  • The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment

The lower court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby, and the respondent in the case, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, appealed the decision. Eventually, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue in the case was also whether, on religious grounds, a corporation could deny contraception coverage. At issue was whether corporations could exercise religious freedoms in this way.

Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court only chose to address whether a religious belief may trump federal law such as the ACA. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion. Five justices agreed that the ACA substantially burdened religion. They also agreed that the ACA did not serve the compelling interest required by the RFRA.

For-profit companies get a religious exemption when it comes to covering birth control. Non-profit religious organizations can get the same. But, it is important to note that this ruling does not apply to publicly traded companies like Coca-Cola and Starbucks. Only closely-held corporations can claim a religious exemption.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg.

They pointed to a proposed amendment to the ACA that would have granted the type of religious exemption described above. The Senate voted against that amendment, and it never became law.

The dissent argues that this legislative history should have led the court to deny Hobby Lobby a religious exemption. It also argued that this exemption should have been denied to other for-profit companies.

In opposition to the decision in Hobby Lobby in 2014, the Obama administration released a statement via its press secretary:

"President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves, rather than their bosses deciding for them," Obama's press secretary said.

What is the Practical Effect of the Hobby Lobby Ruling?

The Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby profoundly affected insurance coverage for birth control. But the practical effect differs for employees and employers.

For Employees

Some employers may choose to stop providing birth control coverage for religious reasons. They can also choose to cover some types of birth control and not others. For example, an employer might include birth control pills in its insurance coverage. They might also include intrauterine devices (IUDs). But they might not include Plan B or other emergency contraceptives.

Employees of these companies who use birth control to prevent pregnancy will have to pay for it out of their own pockets. Some employees might choose not to use birth control due to the cost. Others might switch employers or not apply for jobs with certain companies.

For Employers

Employers against birth control for religious reasons can omit it from employee health insurance policies. This is true even if the employees have a different religious belief that permits them to use birth control. But again, this is only true for "closely held" corporations.

Employers refusing to cover birth control may find their health insurance policies less expensive. But, they may also discover that it hurts their ability to attract and keep top talent.

Protect Your Right to Contraception

The Hobby Lobby case held that corporations may decline coverage of birth control for their employees' health care plans. But it also held that those corporations must be closely held ones. It held that they could do so for religious reasons.

If you believe your employer is denying coverage without the right legal foundation, an attorney can help. Contact a family law attorney near you today to learn more.

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