Most discussions of whether Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as corporations have focused on their for-profit character. This is something of a red herring; for-profit character matters, but not in the way most people think. As law professors Micah Schwartzman, Richard Schragger and Nelson Tebbe have pointed out (see here and here), what disqualifies a corporation from RFRA protection is as much its size as its for-profit character.
The corporate plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby, for example, insist that they “believe” and “practice” the religion of their owners because they are “family businesses” and “closely held” corporations that have very few shareholders. This self-description evokes the stereotypical image of the small-town “mom-and-pop” grocery store, staffed mostly by an extended family whose members greet everyone by name and whose customers, suppliers and other employees uniformly identify as the “real” owners irrespective of legal formalities.
Federal laws are frequently sensitive to the needs of such genuinely small businesses. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act exempts businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and the Fair Housing Act similarly does not apply to small apartment complexes where the owner resides on the premises. The ACA itself exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employees from the employer mandate to provide employee healthcare insurance.
The corporations here are light years away from the “mom-and-pop” stereotype. Hobby Lobby and its affiliates employ 13,400 people in 600 locations scattered through 39 states (including a 3.4 million square foot headquarters complex). Forbesestimates its annual revenue at substantially more than $2 billion.
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review two lower court decisions involving for-profit businesses seeking religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “contraception mandate.” The mandate requires that employer healthcare plans cover all FDA-approved contraception without “cost-sharing”—that is, without a copayment or other out-of-pocket patient expense beyond the monthly plan premium. Churches and other “houses of worship” are fully exempt from the mandate, and there is a regulatory accommodation for religious nonprofits like religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals, which excuses them from complying with the mandate so long as they certify that compliance violates the tenets of their affiliated religion.
For-profit employers whose religious beliefs condemn the use of some or all of the mandated contraceptives have challenged the mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from imposing a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious practices unless it is pursuing an exceptionally important goal that it cannot accomplish in another way. These employers are claiming that RFRA grants them the same kind of exemption as has been granted to churches, synagogues, and other religious congregations, even though they are unambiguously secular enterprises like craft stores, auto parts manufacturers, construction companies, and medical supply businesses. (I examined the weaknesses in these cases in an ACS Issue Brief last fall).
One of the mandate decisions the Court will review, Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius(10th Cir. June 27, 2013), decided that a for-profit corporation that operates a nation-wide chain of craft stores is a “person” who “exercises religion” under RFRA and thus is entitled to its protections. The other decision, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. Sebelius(3rd Cir. July 26, 2013) went the other way, finding that a for-profit corporation that operates a cabinet-making business is not protected by RFRA, and additionally holding that the mandate does not violate free exercise rights protected by the First Amendment.
The D.C. Circuit’s recent decision addressing the contraception mandate – Gilardi v. United States Department of Health and Human Services – got some things right but many more things wrong. The contraception mandate is the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health care plans, now mandatory for large employers, include all FDA-approved contraception without any cost sharing by employees.
Francis and Philip Gilardi own and manage Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, fresh food processing and delivery companies. The brothers are religiously opposed to contraception and argued that the mandate violates their corporations’ and their own religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under RFRA, “persons” are entitled to exemptions from federal laws that impose a substantial burden on their religious conscience unless the challenged law passes strict scrutiny. A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit held that the brothers were entitled to an exemption from the mandate under RFRA.
What the Gilardi Court got right. The Gilardi Court held that secular corporations are not “persons” capable of religious exercise and therefore cannot bring a RFRA claim. Because RFRA draws from Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence, the D.C. Circuit took the occasion to examine whether corporations had free exercise rights. It rejected such a notion, observing that the Supreme Court has never extended free exercise protection to secular corporations and “has expressed strong doubts about the proposition.” “When it comes to the free exercise of religion . . . the [Supreme] Court has only indicated that people and churches worship.”
by Brigitte Amiri, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision refusing to block a Texas law that has forced more than one third of the women's health centers to stop providing abortion. The Court reached its decision despite the fact that the law is having devastating effects on women in the three weeks that it's been in place. Women have been turned away from clinics. They are frustrated, angry, and in tears. In large parts of the state, including the Rio Grande Valley, there is no abortion provider. One woman whose appointment at a Harlingen health center was cancelled said that she did not have the money to travel north, and she would likely be forced to carry to term.
The law at issue requires doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. At first glance, that sounds reasonable. But this requirement is simply a backdoor attempt to shut providers down. As the District Court found after a trial, admitting privileges will place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking abortion, and will do nothing to ensure patient safety. This is why the American Congress of Obstetrician and Gynecologists Texas Medical Association, and the Texas Hospital Association opposed the law.
So where to do we go from here? We keep fighting. As disappointed as we are, we will do everything we can to protect Texas women. We know the public is behind us too. In a poll, 80 percent of Texans opposed this law. As we saw in New Mexico Tuesday night, when asked directly, voters routinely reject laws that attempt to take away personal and private decisions from women and their families.
Our case continues on the merits, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in January. We hope we will find justice at some point in the court process.
The government shutdown may have ended, but the hardline conservative attack on the Affordable Care Act hasn’t. In the coming months, the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear challenges brought by secular, for-profit corporations and their owners to a key provision of the ACA that requires certain employers to provide female employees with health insurance that covers all FDA-approved contraceptives. The ACA already exempts religious employers from the duty to provide contraceptive coverage, but these secular, for-profit corporations insist they are entitled to exemption as well. In its own challenge earlier this year, Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, succeeded in persuading the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to accept a truly remarkable proposition: that the corporate entity itself is a person exercising religion and is entitled, on grounds of religious conscience, to deny its female employees health insurance coverage for FDA-approved contraceptives. Two other federal circuits have rejected this analysis, and the Supreme Court has been asked to resolve the split between the federal courts of appeal. If, as is widely expected, the Court agrees to hear Hobby Lobby, the case will be vitally important on a broad range of issues: corporate personhood and the rights of business corporations, women’s health, employee rights, the role of religion in the workplace and more.
In the 225 years since the ratification of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has never held that secular, for-profit corporations are entitled to the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise religion. As we explain more fully in this legal brief and issue brief, it should not do so now.
From the Founding on, the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty has always been seen as a personal right, inextricably linked to the human capacity to express devotion to a God and act on the basis of reason and conscience. Business corporations, quite properly, have never shared in this fundamental aspect of our constitutional traditions for the obvious reason that a business corporation lacks the basic human capacities – reason, dignity, and conscience – at the core of the Free Exercise Clause. No decision of the Supreme Court, not even Citizens United, has ever invested business corporations with the basic rights of human dignity and conscience. To do so would be a mistake of huge proportions, deeply inconsistent with the text and history of the Constitution and the precedents of the Supreme Court.