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Controversial decision reached in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Today, June 30, 2014, a controversial decision was handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, once known as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. The crux of the case was whether Hobby Lobby was exempt from providing contraceptive coverage for female employees under the Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The case was a direct result of the Affordable Care Act, which required all companies that offered insurance coverage to its employees to extend said coverage to include birth control for female employees. Hobby Lobby objected to this coverage and said it should be held exempt on religious grounds.

On June 30, 2014 the SCOTUS handed down its decision in the controversial case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Case History

In 1990, the SCOTUS, ruled in Employment Division v. Smith that a person may not defy neutral laws of general applicability even as an expression of religious belief. Justice Scalia wrote "To permit this would make professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which required strict scrutiny of neutral law when it may "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion". In 2006, the SCOTUS upheld the constitutionality of the RFRA in its decision of Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita.

In 2010, Congress passed the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA), which relied on the Health Resources and Services Administration to specify what preventative care for women should be covered in employer-based healthcare options. It was decided that all forms of FDA approved contraception would be covered and that companies that chose not to comply with this decision would be faced with a fine that would be $100 per individual per day until compliance with this caveat was met. In 2012, Hobby Lobby-a company founded and owned by the Evangelical Christian Green family-filed suit in the U.S.District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the ACA's contraception rule. In early 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case and in June it was ruled that Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc is indeed a person who should be granted religious freedom. The court then ordered the government to cease enforcement of the contraception rule and sent the case back to the district case. A preliminary injunction was granted in July and in September of the same year, the government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case became consolidated with another case involving Conestoga Wood Specialties, a furniture company owned by the Mennonite Hahn family.

On November 26, the courts accepted the consolidated cases and amicus briefs began pouring in. Arguments for and against included:

  • birth control harms women because men will only want them "for the satisfaction of [their] own desires
  • the contraception rule leads to "the maximization of sexual activity"
  • if shareholders are separated by the corporate veil from corporate liabilities, then their religious values are also separate from the corporation
  • citing Domino's Pizza, Inc. v. McDonald, if JWM Investments could not suffer discrimination through its owner, then Hobby Lobby could not suffer religious burden through its owner
  • future anti-discrimination laws would be pre-emptively harmed if employers could claim to be religiously exempt

On March 25, 2014, oral arguments in the case were heard by the court for 90 minutes. The three women of the court focused on Hobby Lobby's lawyer, Paul Clement, while the men favored questioning the administration's lawyer, Donald Verrilli, Jr. Justice Sotomayor, in quoting United States v. Lee said that an employer can't deprive employees of a statutory right based on their religious beliefs. Clement countered by stating that Lee wasn't applicable in this case because it challenged a tax, not a "significant burden". Justice Kennedy then expressed his concern for the rights of the employees that may not agree with the religious beliefs of their employers. Verrilli went on to argue that Cutter v. Wilkinson required the court to weight the impact on third parties in every RFRA case, Justice Scalia countered that the RFRA does not require the court to balance the interest with a religious objector to the interest of other individuals. Verrilli then returned to the case of United States v. Lee stating that the granting an exemption to an employer should not impose on the employer's religious faith upon its employees.

Today's Ruling

In today's ruling, Justices ruled in a 5-4 decision that "requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom." Those who agreed to strike down the law were Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas while those who wanted to uphold the law were Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, Breyer and Kagan. The court noted that today's decision does not apply to vaccinations or procedures such as blood transfusions, nor would it be used to upheld discriminatory practices made in the name of religious freedom, but many aren't convinced. Some feel this controversial ruling may very well have opened Pandora's Box and will become the gateway to further erode currently protected medical coverage as well as the rights and freedoms of this country's population

Those upset by the ruling include U.S. Senator Gary Peters, of Michigan, who had this to say about the ruling, “Today’s Supreme Court decision is a dangerous step backwards for women’s health and could significantly impact women in Michigan and across the country by leaving them without access to essential health care services. Women, not their bosses, should make their personal health care decisions. I’m ready to work with my colleagues to ensure that women have to the right to determine what’s best for them without interference from their employers.” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had this to say, "If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will. We will continue to fight to preserve women’s access to contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room."

Those who were bouyed by the decision include Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby, who is quoted as stating, "Today, the nation's highest court has reaffirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country's founding principles. The court's decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith." and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins who stated, "The Supreme Court has delivered one of the most significant victories for religious freedom in our generation. We are thankful the Supreme Court agreed that the government went too far by mandating that family businesses owners must violate their consciences under threat of crippling fines."

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