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The Hobby Lobby Case: Contraception and Religious Freedom

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

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

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

Below, you'll find an explanation of the background behind 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 it was only incidental to that interest. The federal government could outlaw peyote as long as it wasn't done to discriminate against Native religious practices.

Around the same time, religious rights 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

When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, it included 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 law of the land.

The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Decision

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 and did not serve the compelling interest required by the RFRA.

As a result, for-profit companies can get the same religious exemption for providing birth control coverage to their employees as non-profit religious organizations. 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.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan. These justices disagreed with the majority's conclusion. 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 and other for-profit companies a religious exemption.

What is the Practical Effect of the Hobby Lobby Ruling?

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 and intrauterine devices (IUDs) in its insurance coverage but not Plan B or other emergency contraceptives.

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

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

Protect Your Right to Contraception

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby held that closely held corporations could decline coverage of birth control for their employees' health care plans 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.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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