In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Hobby Lobby Stores and all other closely held corporations cannot be compelled to provide contraceptives in the health care coverage they provide to employees. As part of the court’s rationale, it deemed corporations persons capable of having religious beliefs.
The Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby argued that the Affordable Care Act places a substantial burden on employers by requiring them to provide health care plans that include coverage for contraceptives. Attorneys for Hobby Lobby said that the Green family, who owns the chain, has a personal religious objection to contraceptives that are used after conception. And the mandate, they argued, violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits laws from placing a substantial burden on a person’s free exercise of religion.
Hobby Lobby was one of three companies challenging the contraception mandate, along with the Hahn family of Conestoga Wood Specialties and the Christian bookstore chain Mardel.
In the opinion of the court, Justice Samuel Alito logically extended the notion of corporate personhood, which it famously used to justify rolling back campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United v. U.S., to encompass the free exercise of religion provided by the First Amendment.
“As we will show, Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s] definition of “persons.” But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protections for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people. For example, extending Fourth Amendment protection to corporations protects the privacy interests of employees and others associated with the company. Protecting corporations from government seizure of their property without just compensation protects all those in the corporations’ financial well-being. And protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control these companies.”
The court’s decision here only applies to closely held corporations, which are companies that have a small number of people — typically fewer than five — who collectively control a majority stake.
The court was also careful to note the narrow scope of its ruling, noting,
“This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”
Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion. Dissenting were Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the dissent in part.