The Hobby Lobby Case, and why I actually agree with the ruling

                Reproductive health is very important for women, whether it is the ability to control if, when, and by how large to grow their family, or being able to treat various medical problems ranging from severe PMS symptoms to reduced risk of certain cancers (Dissenting 24). With the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it was determined that women should have access to all forms of birth control that are recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, and that they should be covered by the insurance plans offered, whether employer provided or purchased on an exchange, and to no extra cost to the consumer.

Shortly after the ACA was enacted, many religious non-profit organizations came forth saying that they found at least some forms the covered birth control was objectionable on moral grounds, and that their being forced to provide them was an infringement upon their freedom of religious exercise. They argued that certain forms of contraceptives could actually prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into the uterine wall, effectively causing an abortion, which would be against their standing. In the ensuing debate, these organizations were granted an exception based on their strongly held religious beliefs by the Health and Human Services (HHS). As a result, religious employers, such as churches, are exempt from this contraceptive mandate…[u]nder this accommodation, the insurance issuer must exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide plan participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without imposing any cost-sharing requirements on the employer, its insurance plan, or its employee beneficiaries (Syllabus 2).

In 2012, the Greens, owners of Hobby Lobby and Mardel Christian and Educational Supply (owned by Mart Green, son of David Green), and the Hahns, owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, both of which are for-profit corporations owned by religious families, filed suit to be granted the same exception as the non-profit organizations. They objected to four types of birth control, namely the two types of emergency contraception (Plan B an Ella) and both forms of IUD (hormonal and copper), because they have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs [these] four contraceptive methods…are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions (Opinion 2). The other sixteen forms of birth control they did not object to. The cases moved through the legal system as they tried to argue that providing these forms of birth control was against their moral standing and violated their free exercise of religion, while their opposition, namely Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, tried to argue that because they were a for-profit company, the owner’s personal religious views could not be used as a means to run a corporation, especially when those views and beliefs disenfranchised a group of people.

On March 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, and decided on June 30, 2014. Their ruling on the case was that Hobby Lobby did not need to provide the contested birth control. This decision has resulted in many people being outraged, both by the decision and what they see as natural and obvious consequences. The Court made their ruling based on the HHS’s previous action to provide coverage for women who work for a religious non-profit, and that under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which states, in part, that a government action could not impose a substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise without it serving a compelling interest and demonstrating the least restrictive means of serving that interest (Opinion 16), to which the Court claims the birth control mandate fails to do, at least in part. The opposition however claims that this ruling opens the door to allowing companies to object to other procedures such as blood transfusions or surgery based on a corporation’s “strongly held beliefs” against these things. A study of the Court’s ruling indicates that the chances of this happening, nor of women finding themselves without full contraceptive coverage, even if working for a for-profit religious company, would not happen.

                The first thing that needs to be looked at in this ruling, and to understand why the Court came to its decision, is the question of whether Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties can be considered a “person.” According to the Dictionary Act (Title 1, Section 1, Chapter 1 of the US Code, which is used to help define terms used in governance and law (Cornell Law)), “the [word] ‘person’…[includes] corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals(Opinion 19).” Based on this definition, a corporation can be considered a person. Whether someone agrees with this definition or not, legally, corporations can be considered a person. This leads to the very important idea that a for-profit corporation can in fact operate under a religious belief.

                Many States allow for a corporation to operate under a religious view. “[T]he objectives that may properly be pursued by the companies…are governed by the laws of the States in which they were incorporated—Pennsylvania and Oklahoma—and the laws of those States permit for-profit corporations to pursue “any lawful purpose” or “act,” including the pursuit of profit in conformity with the owners’ religious principles (Opinion 25).” This is extremely important, because it indicates that, even before this case came before the Court, there has been precedence for a corporation to operate under the beliefs of the person who owns the corporation, in extent acting as a continuation of that person.

                After having answered the question of whether a for-profit corporation can in fact be considered a person, and subsequently, if a corporation can be run with the religious beliefs of the owners, it is possible to look at the next important point of the ruling, which is whether the birth control mandate of the ACA is an unreasonable burden to the corporations or not. At the heart of this question is the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the “Government [from] substantially [burdening] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest (Opinion 16).” This idea is what informed the majority of the Justices opinion on three parts: that because a corporation can be considered a person, it can thus fall under the protection afforded under the RFRA, and that while the birth control mandate does in fact pass the first part of this “test” by showing there is a compelling government interest in making sure women have access to all forms of birth control, it does not pass the second part because it is not the “least restrictive means” to do so.

                The first prong to look at is the fact that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are protected by the RFRA because they can be considered a legal “person.” As such, the RFRA does apply to them for protection against governmental infringement against a person’s freedom of religious exercise. One of the basic tenants this country is founded on is the freedom of religious belief. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief. It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community (Concurring 2). This does mean that not all people will agree with all religious ideas or expressions, yet they are still protected. Because of these protections, it is recognized by the Government that the rules and laws it institutes shall not place a “substantial burden” upon a person’s religious practices, with few exceptions, as laid out by the RFRA, all of which must be in place.

                As it is, this mandate does pose a substantial burden upon Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, and thus it needs to be determined if this is a compelling burden, and of the least restrictive means to obtain the result. “HHS’s contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion…It requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby (Syllabus 4),” The other option is to just forgo providing insurance all together, which would provide another, though much lesser, financial burden, as the $2,000 per person fine is less than what it would cost to provide the insurance in the first place, and possibly even another religious burden by ignoring the fact that corporations do have a religious purpose for providing health insurance to their employers in the first place (Syllabus 4). Since it is seen as a burden upon these corporations, the Court then looked to see if it could pass the tests set up by the RFRA, which they decided it did pass the first part of the test, but not the second.

                The first part of the test is when the Government can demonstrate a compelling interest in enacting the ruling. When it comes to the birth control mandate, the government has shown an interest in making sure women have access to all forms of birth control as women (and men) have a constitutional right to obtain contraceptives…and HHS tells us that “[studies] have demonstrated that even moderate copayments for preventive services can deter patients from receiving those services (Opinion 39). Between the financial burden of obtaining birth control (of which, the FDA approved forms covers more than just the pill), as well as the health benefits contraceptives can provide to women, such as [avoiding] the health problems unintended pregnancies may visit on them and their children. The coverage [also] helps safeguard the health of women for whom pregnancy may be hazardous, even life threatening…[and] the mandate secures benefits wholly unrelated to pregnancy, preventing certain cancers, menstrual disorders, and pelvic pain (Dissenting 24). The Court has ruled that the birth control mandate does in fact pass the first test of the RFRA.

                The second part of the test is whether the Government can prove that a rule is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest, mandating that all forms of birth control should be available to women at no extra cost to them in this case. The Court says that there is another alternative that the Government has already enacted that can be employed. The HHS has already set up a system to further this cause when they decided that employees of religious non-profit corporations that opted out of the birth control mandate would still have access to coverage of all approved contraceptives without any cost sharing to the employee, and that “according to HHS, this system imposes no net economic burden on the insurance companies that are required to provide or secure the coverage (Opinion 3).” This ends up being the major crux of the case and proving that there are alternatives available for corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga that does not infringe on any one party’s religious freedoms. The corporation is able to exercise their religious freedom by not partaking in something they object to morally, that is, the potential to cause an abortion, while at the same time making sure that a person working for that corporation who does not hold the same beliefs can still access all forms of birth control at no extra cost to themselves.

                There is one final point that has been brought up in response to the ruling of the Court in this case, and that is the possibility for other corporations to refuse various procedures based on their strongly held beliefs. It has been pointed out many times that blood transfusions could be denied by Jehovah’s Witnesses and immunizations by Christian Scientists, among other things. The Court was very specific when addressing these concerns in the first place. They wanted to make sure that it was understood that their ruling on the birth control mandate would not mean that “an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs (Opinion 46).” It was noted that other insurance requirements, including immunizations, blood transfusions, and many other items that have been thrown out as an objection, could serve different interests, such as public safety in preventing the spread of communicable diseases (Opinion 46). This will not prevent a religious based corporation from bringing forth a suit, but it is acknowledged that such a suit will not necessarily succeed because of the interests involved in those specific cases. While a Christian Scientist corporation might decide to drop immunizations from their approved insurance mandates, if it were brought before the Court (either lower or upper level), the likelihood of that corporation being able to win its case based on the ruling in this one is not guaranteed, as the Government has a vested interest in making sure that people are immunized from certain communicable diseases, as well as there currently being no less restrictive means to be able to provide immunizations on a large scale to the people.

                A key element to all the points being presented here is that of a corporation being able to be recognized as a person, and thus be able to do business based on the owner’s religious beliefs. The court has stated that it is not up to them to determine if a person or corporations “sincerely held” beliefs are “mistaken or insubstantial. Instead, our ‘narrow function . . . in this context is to determine’ whether the line drawn reflects ‘an honest conviction (Opinion 37-38).’” AT the core of this, that the Court is not in the business to determine if a belief held by another is mistaken or false, but whether the entity that holds the belief truly believes in it. In the case of the Greens and the Hahns, it is determined that they do strongly believe that the four types of birth control they object might actually cause an abortion – whether or not they do in fact cause an abortion.

                This country prides itself on ideology of religious freedom, especially on the idea that we should not tell another person how or when they can practice or express their religion. Many in this country would like to think that this should only apply to a natural, living person, yet there are plenty of examples of extending the same freedom to express religious views to businesses. By saying that a business could not operate as it saw fit is hampering free enterprise as well as our very cherished freedom of religion, especially since there are option available that allow for an alternative.

                Seeing as the female (and male) employees of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga have access to sixteen various types of birth control provided through their employer insurance, and still have access to the other four types of birth control through the insurance provider at no extra cost to themselves, it would seem the Court has come to a reasonable conclusion. If this option were available, and the Court had ruled that Hobby Lobby still had to provide for the objected birth control, then I could potentially be argued that the Court and Government were restricting the corporations freedom of religious expression. The HHS has already provided an option that allows for women to be able to access all forms of birth control, either directly through their insurance or as a secondary option, and in such a manner that it does not produce a burden to the insured.

                Despite a person’s own views about Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, they are within their rights to not provide the controversial forms of birth control, because they do have a “very sincerely held religious belief,” and their view actually does not impede another person’s access to health care, or birth control.

 

 Sources:

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Inc. et al (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf)

 

FDA, Birth Control: Medicines To Help You

(http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ByAudience/ForWomen/FreePublications/ucm313215.htm)

 

Dictionary Act: Cornell Law (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/1/1)