The United States Supreme Court recently determined that certain types of corporations could exercise religious beliefs at the expense of their employees in the long-awaited decision for Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
Hobby Lobby concerned whether a corporation run by a family could avoid following the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the basis of the family’s religious beliefs. The birth control mandate requires all but religious entities to provide health insurance that covers the cost of all forms of birth control for their employees. The Green family, which founded the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain, claimed that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1990. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in order to ensure that any law that burdened an individual’s religious liberty was given strict scrutiny. If the law did not meet the strict scrutiny requirement, it was nullified. The issue in Hobby Lobby was whether such a law also applied to a “closed corporation,” or a corporation in the hands of a few individuals, as opposed to ones whose shares could be publicly owned. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court found that it did.
The majority consisted of Justice Alito (who wrote the decision), Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Kennedy (concurring). The majority based its decision on the fact that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and did not address whether it violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. The majority claimed that their decision affected closely held corporations only, stating that they fall within the definition of “people” designated by Congress. Also, in a questionable addition, the majority claimed that the Hobby Lobby decision applied to the contraceptives mandate only – not to vaccines or blood transfusions. The decision should also not be considered a “shield” for illegal discrimination.
Justice Ginsberg wrote the dissent, where she was joined by Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan, and Justice Breyer. The dissent criticized the majority for being the first to find that a corporation had religious beliefs, noting that it was an “artificial legal entity.” Justice Ginsberg wrote that she feared the Supreme Court had “ventured into a minefield.”
The ruling is discouraging to all workers, women or no. While the majority claims to put limits on the way the ruling could be applied – “religious freedom” does not mean discriminating, or not covering blood tests, for example – it is difficult to imagine that other corporations will not view it as an opportunity to challenge benefits for their employees under the guise of “religious freedom.” And while the majority claimed that no public corporation would claim to have religious beliefs, it does not take much imagination to envision this scenario occurring. Even if other corporations do nothing, the most disturbing aspect of the ruling is that the Supreme Court openly sided with corporations over the rights of their workers. An employee’s own beliefs come second to those of an entity created to limit individual liability. While the next steps are unknown, it is safe to say that the issue will not die down any time soon.
Miller & Falkner is an Indiana and Kentucky plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. If you need a Kentucky or Indiana employment law attorney, contact us today for a free consultation.