Some for-profit companies claim that they, because of their owners’ religious beliefs, should be exempt from the requirement that their health insurance plans provide contraception. The Supreme Court has decided to dive into these claims, one brought by Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts retailer, and one by a Mennonite cabinetmaker with only about 500 employees. The New York Times article following the announcement identifies this fight as a cultural one, modernity vs. tradition.
Although the immediate point of these cases continue the challenges to Obamacare, the more basic principle shines a light on how to accommodate religious beliefs in the workplace. Employers are required to accommodate religious beliefs if it is possible without undue disruption. Must employees accommodate an employer’s religious freedom? The employers here cite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring that a person’s freedom to worship “shall not substantially burden a person’s religious exercise” unless the burden can be justified. The employers contend that they should not have to pay for a benefit plan that enables (but of course does not require) their employees to obtain cheaper birth control.
Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. is the lead case. The question presented to the Supreme Court is framed as follows:
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq. , provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1(a) and (b). The question presented is whether RFRA allows a for-profit corporation to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.
By combining this case with the Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. case, the Supreme Court is expected also to address the issue of the extent of First Amendment rights to religious freedom enjoyed by corporations, as well as the statutory issue presented by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If corporations are persons for the purpose of the First Amendment freedom to worship clause, then does this law violate their rights?
If the contraception mandate is found to violate a corporate employer’s right to worship, the implications for other workplace issues can be profound. An employer’s sincerely held views could easily conflict with a worker’s right to resist a boss’s proselytizing on his (or its) own religion; with a family’s decision to allow a woman to work after having a baby; or with an employee’s choice of activities outside the office. To me, it seems inconsistent with pursuing a profitable enterprise to claim that a law applicable to most businesses in the country can’t be applied to a business whose owners oppose birth control. The owners seem sincere, however, in objecting to a law they see as constricting their choices of benefits to offer. Unless the Court ends up resolving the case on narrow procedural grounds, as sometimes happens, this group of cases will have far reaching significance.