This week, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two consolidated cases where owners of for-profit, secular corporations challenge the federal Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraception mandate as a violation of their religious freedom rights.
The ACA requires covered employers to provide a full range of preventative health care and screening services, including contraceptives and birth control, in their employer-sponsored health care plans. Referring to the contraception coverage as a "mandate" is actually a misnomer because employers have the option of paying a modest tax instead of providing comprehensive health insurance. And that tax is often less expensive than provision of employee health insurance.
However, recognizing religious sensibilities surrounding contraception and abortion, the Obama Administration worked hard to accommodate differing religious views. The so-called ACA contraceptive mandate does not apply to non-profit religious organizations (like a church or synagogue) and religiously-affiliated organizations (like church-affiliated schools) can easily opt out of the requirement by signing and filing a one-page form.
The fervently-religious owners of Hobby Lobby, a large chain of arts and crafts stores that employs over 13,000 people at over 500 locations, brought suit against the mandate because they object to certain forms of contraception. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld their challenge, deciding that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applies to corporations and that the federal government ACA contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the owners’ religious practice.
The owners of Conestoga Wood, a company that employs hundreds of people that makes cabinets and other woodworking products, similarly object, on religious grounds, to providing contraceptives to their employees. However, in this case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in contrast to the Tenth Circuit, decided that for-profit secular corporations cannot engage in religious speech and are therefore not protected under the RFRA.
RFRA requires the federal government to demonstrate a compelling interest where it “substantially burdens” a person’s religious exercise. ADL strongly supported the enactment of this 1993 statute, which was intended to be a shield against religious discrimination. But in this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are attempting to use RFRA as a sword – giving them license to impose their religious beliefs on others. That undermines the purpose of the statute, and turns religious freedom on its head. There is no doubt that RFRA could not have been enacted into law if it had been anticipated that it would later be used by corporate owners to thwart anti-discrimination laws or the religious freedom of company employees.
ADL joined a coalition brief with a diverse group of more than two dozen faith-based organizations. The brief, prepared by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argues that applying the conception regulations to the corporations does not substantially burden religion. For-profit corporate entities do not practice religion. And because the legally distinct corporations would actually pay for and provide the comprehensive health insurance, any religious burden on their owners is minimal. Not to mention that the owners have the option of their corporations paying a modest tax instead of providing comprehensive insurance.
The brief further asserts that Americans do not lose their religious freedom when they establish for profit businesses. But the religious beliefs of these employers should not be imposed on third parties – their employees – and the owners’ rights cannot trump the religious rights of their employees.
It would be hard to overstate the stakes for religious liberty and equality in these two cases. The American workforce is highly diverse. Allowing secular corporate owners to restrict access to affordable contraceptives on the basis of religion discriminates against women and limits their equality and independence. Approval of this action by the Court would also be a grave blow to religious freedom in this country – and open the door to the specter of workplace discrimination and for-profit companies denying coverage for other essential medical services that some owners might deem religiously offensive, such as blood transfusions, psychiatric care, and vaccinations.