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Supreme Court Rules on Hobby Lobby, Home-Care Workers' Union Dues

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn, wrapping up its 2013 Term by addressing two contentious issues: Obamacare's contraceptive mandate and public union dues.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court ruled that closely held corporations can object to providing certain forms of birth control to employees as required under Obamacare, if doing so would violate sincerely held religious beliefs. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court held that Illinois home healthcare workers could not be compelled to pay union dues to unions they were not members of.

What was the High Court's rationale in these two much-anticipated opinions?

Hobby Lobby: Contraceptive Mandate Is Not the 'Least Restrictive Means'

The Hobby Lobby case pitted three companies objecting to the birth-control mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) -- craft retailer Hobby Lobby, Christian bookseller Mardel, and furniture maker Conestoga Wood -- against the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with implementing the 2010 healthcare law, Reuters reports.

The 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito explains that closely held corporations are considered legal "persons" entitled to protection of religious liberty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Under the RFRA, the government is prohibited from "substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion" unless it can demonstrate a "compelling interest" and that its means of furthering that interest are the "least restrictive means."

The Court found that, as the government already allowed for religious nonprofits to opt out of providing the forms of contraception at issue in this case, the mandate on private companies was not the least restrictive means and therefore could not be applied.

However, the Court was careful to confine its opinion to the particular contraceptive methods opposed by the petitioners in this case, noting that religious opposition to other portions of the healthcare law or other government mandates should not be afforded the same protections. (For more analysis, head over to FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court blog.)

Harris: Home-Care Workers Are Not 'Full-Fledged Public Employees'

The Harris opinion was also written by Judge Alito, and was split 5-4 down the same idealogical and political lines as the Hobby Lobby opinion, Reuters reports.

In Harris, home healthcare workers in Illinois were forced to pay union dues to a public employees' union against their will. The in-home care workers sued, alleging that violated their First Amendment rights.

The majority's opinion stopped short of overturning a 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed for the collection of compulsory union dues if they weren't used for political activities. Instead, the Court found that the workers in this case were not full-fledged state employees and thus were not subject to Abood's "anomalous" approach to allowing for so-called agency fees.

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