At 10 a.m. next Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hold ninety minutes of oral argument on the government’s authority to require private businesses to provide birth control and other pregnancy-related services to their employees under the Affordable Care Act.  Arguing for the challengers to the so-called “contraceptive mandate” will be Paul D. Clement, of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Bancroft PLLC.  Defending the mandate will be U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.   Each will have forty-five minutes of time, under an order issued Thursday expanding the time beyond the normal amount.  The consolidated cases are Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.

Background

For the first time since the broad new federal health care law partially survived its most sweeping constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court nearly two years ago, the Affordable Care Act comes up for a new test before the Justices.  This time, the Court will be examining whether the government may enforce against private businesses owned by religiously devout owners the requirement that employee health plans provide no-cost coverage for women’s pregnancy-related services, including birth control.

These services, required under the so-called “contraceptive mandate” in the Act and in government regulations, are not themselves in legal trouble:  the only issue before the Court at this point is which businesses can be ordered to provide the services to their female workers at no cost to them.

That issue will be debated by two of the legal gladiators who met in the last test at the Court of the Affordable Care Act:  Washington attorney Paul D. Clement, a former U.S. Solicitor General, and the current Solicitor General, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.

There probably would be a significant loophole in the contraceptive mandate’s reach if the challengers win.  Some women’s rights groups have estimated that millions of women would be affected.  Female workers of the two companies involved and those of other religiously oriented companies would have to cover personally the cost of at least some of the birth-control services — unless the government were to set up a new program on its own to do so, which is a very unlikely prospect.

Thus, the two cases that the Court has combined for review set up a direct conflict between the interests of some employers against those of their female workers of child-bearing age.  The federal government is clearly on the workers’ side, but the lower federal courts have been divided on who should win.

The dispute only involves private businesses because religious groups, as such, are given an exemption by regulations the government has issued.  Even some businesses get exemptions, too, because their employee health plans have been “grandfathered,” but before long those, too, will actually have to provide the benefits at issue, or face heavy financial penalties.

At the level of their greatest potential, the two cases raise the profound cultural question of whether a private, profit-making business organized as a corporation can “exercise” religion and, if it can, how far that is protected from government interference.  The question can arise — and does, in these cases — under either the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause or under a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993.

In a manner of speaking, these issues pose the question — a topic of energetic debate in current American political and social discourse — of whether corporations are “people.”  The First Amendment protects the rights “of the people,” and the 1993 law protects the religious rights of “persons.”  Do profit-making companies qualify as either?

Aside from whether corporations do have any religious rights, as such, the cases also raise the question whether the religious rights of their owners — real people, who undeniably can act according to their faith — are violated by the requirement that their companies obey the contraceptive mandate.  Ordinarily, in business law, corporations are separate from their owners, but the owners in these cases resist that notion, at least so far as the owners’ religious views actually shape the business of their companies.

No one doubts that the owners of the two companies have sincere religious objections to some forms of birth control or that their beliefs do counsel them to avoid any role in providing those services to their employees.  The companies and their owners do not have to convince the Court that that is what they believe — only whether that belief controls enforcement, or not, of the mandate.

One company is Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and a related company, Mardel, Inc.  Headquartered in Oklahoma City, the two companies are owned — through a trust — by members of the Green family.   Hobby Lobby is a chain of more than 500 arts-and-crafts stores across the country, with more than 13,000 employees.  Mardel is a chain of Christian book stores, with 35 outlets and about 400 employees.

The Green family members signed a formal commitment to run the two chains according to Christian religious principles — closing on Sunday, advertising their religious orientation, and playing religious music in the stores.   The owners and their stores do not object to every part of the contraceptive mandate, but they do object to the use of any drugs or intrauterine devices that — in the words of their lawyers — “end human life after conception.”

They have estimated that, if they follow their faith and violate the mandate, they face fines of about $1.3 million a day, or almost $475 million a year.  They believe that cancelling their health plan to avoid obeying the mandate would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other employers.   They do not believe that the government can force them to make such choices.

The other company is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a company based in East Earl, Pennsylvania, that also has operations in other states, making wooden cabinets and wood specialty products.  It has about 950 employees.

The company is owned by members of the Hahn family, who are Mennonite Christians.  Their faith teaches them that it is wrong to take a human life and to prevent its creation through drugs and intrauterine devices.  If the company or its owners were to violate the mandate to adhere to their beliefs, they estimate that they would face financial penalties of about $35 million a year.

Federal appeals courts ruled in conflicting ways.  The U.S. Court of Appeals f0r the Tenth Circuit decided that Hobby Lobby was likely to win its challenge because, even though it is a profit-making business, it can, indeed, act according to faith principles.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided that neither the company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, nor its owners could claim First Amendment religious rights — because, it found, the corporation is incapable of doing so, and because the owners had chosen the corporate form for their business and it stands apart from their personal interests.

Petitions for certiorari

The federal government asked the Supreme Court to review the Hobby Lobby case, while the Hahn family and their woodworking company did the same in their case.  As offered to the Justices, the two cases together raise both the First Amendment religious rights question and the RFRA statutory issue, as to both the companies and their owners.

The First Amendment provides that no law may be passed, at any level of government, that prohibits “the free exercise of religion.”  RFRA provides that government agencies (only at the federal level, since the Act no longer applies at the state and local levels) may not impose a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of “a person,” even if the law is one that everyone ordinarily must obey, unless the government can justify the burden to satisfy a “compelling government interest,” and only if it is the “least restrictive means” of doing so.  It does not specifically define “person.”

On November 26, the Court agreed to review both cases and consolidated them for review.

Briefs on the merits

Hobby Lobby Stores — whose name will probably provide the label for the case in history — argued aggressively in its merits brief that the federal government was pursuing “a misguided shell game” in which only the Green family has rights and the corporation suffers alone the burden of the mandate.   That, it contended, was a move to “drive a wedge” between the family and its corporation.

The brief insisted that, if the Court uses the definition of “person” that is in the federal Dictionary Act, it would refer not only to natural persons, but to corporations, too.  And, under the ACA regulations at issue, the filing said, the government is seeking to force employers to provide specific contraceptives, not just “an exchange of money.”  It is the contraceptives, not their cost, that burdens the Green family’s faith and the principles of Hobby Lobby Stores and the related bookstore chain, the brief argued.

Saying that the Court must apply “strict scrutiny,” the most demanding test for the validity of a government mandate or program, the Hobby Lobby brief said that the government has “not come close” to satisfying that standard.  The official claims that the mandates support public health and women’s equality are so broad that they could never meet that test, the brief said.

The retail chains’ filing said that the government has come up at the last minute with another attempted justification — that is, that the mandate is part of a comprehensive scheme of providing health benefits to all.  But that notion, the brief said, is belied by all the exemptions the government has allowed.

Because the question that the government raised in its petition in the Hobby Lobby case was restricted to the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the retail chains’ merits brief is confined to that issue.

The merits brief for Conestoga Wood Specialties and its owners deals with its claims under both RFRA and the First Amendment.  The filing begins with a defense of the Hahn family’s claim that its members choose to practice their faith through business activity, as well as in their personal lives.  “The corporate formality of a business is not determinative of whether religious exercise occurs in that business,” it contended.

But, if the family’s religious interests could be separated from the company, the brief went on, the company itself “exercises religion, too.”  Under state law, the corporate form may be used “to pursue all lawful purposes, without excluding religion,” Conestoga’s lawyers told the Court.  The Supreme Court, they added, “has never limited religious freedom to natural persons.”

Aside from arguing that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the religious rights of the Hahns and of their company, the brief said that Congress in passing the Affordable Care Act did not require that contraceptive services be included in employee health plans; that was added by the federal government in ACA regulations.

And, like Hobby Lobby, the Conestoga filing asserted that “strict scrutiny” is the only valid test to apply and that the government cannot show that it has a compelling interest in enforcing the birth-control mandate against religious objectors.  If the government is intent on assuring access to birth control, the brief said, it could either expand existing programs which provide that service or create new ones.

The Obama administration’s merits brief in Hobby Lobby focused on the RFRA claim, and its separate brief in the Conestoga case sought to answer claims under both RFRA and the First Amendment.

In each filing, the government made the same basic points:  profit-making businesses do not “exercise” religion at all, for purposes of either federal law or the Constitution; the mandate only applies to corporations and not to their owners and, in any event, corporations law treats the business separate from the owner; and, even if the mandate did have to satisfy a compelling government interest, it does so by assuring that female workers have access to an important health benefit as part of a comprehensive health insurance scheme.

The contraceptive coverage requirement, according to the government, is a neutral obligation that applies to profit-making businesses in general, and does not target any religious exercise.  The exemptions that have been provided for other businesses — those whose plans are “grandfathered” and thus do not immediately have to obey the mandate — will only exist in a phased sequence, and that alone is not enough to deprive the mandate of its neutral character, the U.S. brief said.

In passing RFRA, the brief contended, Congress did not intend to “uniquely disable the government by working a dramatic expansion” of the claims for exemption based on religious liberty.  Besides, it added, there has not been a single decision by the Supreme Court that struck down a federal law — or required an exemption to it — on the theory that that was necessary “to protect the rights of a for-profit corporation or of the owners, managers, or directors of the corporation.”

The government brief also made a religious liberty argument of its own.  It said that giving for-profit businesses the chance to obtain an exemption from federal laws based on religion would threaten “the special place of religious institutions in our society.”  Congress has often given religious bodies exemptions from laws, but it has always “drawn the line at for-profit corporations,” the brief said.

If Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are legally entitled to exemptions, Congress would be discouraged from providing exemptions for non-profit religious organizations “for fear that doing so would automatically entitle for-profit corporations to the same accommodation,” according to the government’s argument.

The briefs for the government also asserted that there actually is no burden on any religious exercise by owners or corporations, because the choice to use a birth-control pill or device would be made independently by the female workers covered by a health insurance plan.   The connection between those choices and the interests of the employer who finances the plan, the brief went on, is “too indirect” to make a legal difference.

The amicus briefs

If numbers of amici were to make a difference, there is no contest in these cases:  the government drew two dozen briefs in support, while Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are backed by five dozen filings.  There are two briefs that do not take a position on how these specific cases should be decided, but they take opposite positions:  a brief by professors of history and law argues that the Court has always treated corporations differently from natural persons, while a brief by a group of traditional religious organizations urges the Court to adopt an expansive view of the right to religious exemptions from public laws.

The boldest brief in support of the government takes a position that the government did not, urging the Supreme Court to strike down RFRA as an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to scuttle a Supreme Court decision requiring religious organizations to obey laws that apply generally.  That is a brief by a disparate group of advocacy organizations, including non-believers and survivors of clergy sexual abuse of children.

There is, on the corporations’ side, a brief by constitutional law scholars seeking to answer that constitutional challenge.  That brief contends that RFRA is a valid exercise of Congress’s legislative powers, and that nullifying the law “would threaten thousands of statutes that protect religious minorities.”

There are predictable allies on each side:  civil rights and women’s rights groups, liberal organizations, professors of various disciplines, and liberal lawmakers on the side of the federal government and the ACA, and traditional religious organizations and advocacy groups, conservative and libertarian entities, professors of various disciplines, and conservative lawmakers on the side of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga.

Analysis

If the legal territory the Court enters in these cases is not entirely new, it is also not well traveled.  The Court has sort of assumed since 1886 — without ever ruling flatly — that corporations are “persons” in a constitutional sense.  And, over time, it has filled in some of the gaps on what rights corporations are to have under the Constitution.  But it has never said, explicitly, that they are endowed with the right to freely exercise a religious faith.

These two cases give it the chance to do just that, if it is so inclined, and that would be a profound constitutional shift, with deeply uncertain implications.  It would, at a minimum, pave the way for businesses to choose whom they serve according to the identities of the customers and how those square with the religious preferences of the company.

But the Court need not go that far, even if it should lean toward ruling in favor of an exemption within the business world from the ACA’s contraceptive mandate.  It could decide that the Green family and the Hahn family have a right to exercise their religious beliefs in the way they run their business firms, and that this mandate intrudes on those rights.

Along the way, of course, the Justices would have to find a way around the conventional business law notion that corporations stand apart from their owners.  But they could do that with a very narrow definition of the rights of the owners of a company that is so closely held that it is essentially not a public corporation, except in name.  Again, though, that would grow out of the rights of the owners, not of the corporate entity itself.

The problem in anticipating a victory for religious owners, though, is that the focus in that analysis may fall too heavily on the owner’s interests, and insufficiently on the interests of the employees.  What is at stake on that side of the legal controversy is the interest of female employees in managing their personal lives and their reproductive health, with obvious implications for their ability to carry on their work lives and careers.

Just as there are Justices now on the Court who would, indeed, view this controversy through sympathetic eyes for business management, there also are Justices now serving who would certainly view sympathetically the claims of female workers of child-bearing age.

In these two cases, those two perspectives seem distinctly at odds, and the chances of finding common ground between them seem remote, indeed.

For example, the easiest way to rule for a religious exemption for businesses or their owners in this case would be to interpret the Affordable Care Act as not even authorizing the government to include birth control in the requirements for employee health plans.  That is an argument that the lawyers for the businesses here actually make.  But to rule that way would be to read the purposes of the statute’s coverage of preventive health services so narrowly as to ignore the realities of the health of women who work in offices, factories, and shops.

In terms of the legal foundations for a ruling, the Court might well go into this case hoping to avoid making new constitutional law, on the institutional premise that it should not decide a constitutional question unless it has no way to avoid it.

But it would be hard to base a ruling in this case solely on the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because that Act is essentially designed to protect constitutional rights of religious liberty.  To know what that law does protect requires knowing what the Constitution embraces — either as to corporations, or as to their owners, or both.

Only one thing, perhaps, is certain as the argument in this case approaches: whatever the Court decides, it will not decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act.  The nation’s politics, and many of its legislatures (including Congress), are absorbed with debates over whether to keep the law, to amend it, to render it unenforceable, or to repeal it altogether.  None of that depends upon the outcome of this case.

The Court has not been asked to strike down any part of the law, and it almost certainly won’t volunteer to do so.  All that is at issue is who must obey the contraceptive mandate.

Posted in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell, Analysis, Featured, Health Care, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Argument preview: Religion, rights, and the workplace, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 20, 2014, 3:30 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/03/argument-preview-religion-rights-and-the-workplace/