On June 30, 2014, SCOTUS
issued the last two decisions of the 2013-2014 term. The last of those two decisions was the long-awaited Hobby Lobby decision. The issues in Hobby Lobby
were whether closely-held corporations could be required to provide insurance coverage for certain types of contraception that ran contrary to their religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby and the other company at issue, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. are closely held for-profit corporations “owned and controlled by members of a single family” and each company expressed in writing in a mission statement the family’s religious beliefs. Both companies sued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Freedom of Expression clause of the First Amendment.
The court needed to conduct a two-part inquiry. First, do the protections under the RFRA apply to regulations “that govern the activities of for-profit corporations” such as Hobby Lobby et al. i.e. closely held for-profit corporations. The second inquiry is, if the protections apply to closely-held for-profit corporations, is the burden the government wants impose on those corporations (1) in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and (2) is it the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.
Answering the first question, the court noted that the RFRA applied to a “person’s” exercise of religion. As the RFRA did not contain a definition of “person”, the proper course is to turn to the Dictionary Act which included corporations in the definition of “person.” Nothing in the RFRA suggested that the court deviate from the Dictionary Act’s definition of “person.” Furthermore, the court noted that religious protections and freedoms were already extended to religious corporations and not-for-profits with a religious purpose. (Exceptions to the contraception coverage requirement were already granted to these types of institutions.) Finally, other similar for-profit businesses e.g. sole proprietorships and partnerships already can make free-exercise claims. Therefore, the court held that closely held for-profit institutions can make free-exercise claims, especially where there is a demonstration of sincere religious belief.
Answering the second question, the court held that the regulations at issue were not the least restrictive means for accomplishing the government’s goals of providing contraception coverage. In fact the court noted that there was no reason why the existing program in place which provides this coverage to employees of not-for-profit religious entities, could not also apply in the case of for-profit religious entities.
And with that, the court is adjourned until “First Monday.”