Home » Blog » Summary and Analysis of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby 573 US — (2014)

Summary and Analysis of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby 573 US — (2014)

The Supreme Court held yesterday that a family owned for-profit corporation could invoke the Religious Freedom Act to claim an exemption from offering coverage of contraceptive services to their employees

The Affordable Care Act requires large employers and those small employers offering coverage to cover preventive services that are of proven effectiveness and meet the effectiveness criteria of the US Public Health Services. Exemptions are available for grandfathered firms. Furthermore there can be no copays for effective preventive services.

Contraceptive services are part of the list of demonstrated effective preventive services. Hobby Lobby and the other plaintiffs objected to four specific contraceptive services, essentially IUDs (Intrauterine Devices) and morning after pills, saying they were equivalent to abortion and against their religious beliefs. They argued that they would comply with the rest of the Affordable Care Act, but in their religious conscience could not offer those four contraceptive services due to their religious beliefs.

HHS gave religious exemptions to churches and other comparable religious non-profits who have religious objections to contraception. In order to preserve access to contraception for men and women who work for these exempt employers; they created a work-around so that insurers would offer the services at no cost to these employees. Since the contraceptive services are a cost saver, rather than a cost increaser, the insurers can offer them at no additional premium cost.

The majority opinion says that the 1993 Religious Freedom Act requires HHS to offer the same workaround for the religiously motivated for-profit, family-owned plaintiffs. The dissent says that the majority misreads the Religious Freedom Act. It’s an interesting legal discussion for those interested in statutory construction. Here are some highlights as I see them.

  • The court majority says that corporations are “people” and protected by the RFA while the dissent says that the RFA reaches only real people who go to church and have religious beliefs, not corporations who by their very nature do not go to church or have religious beliefs. The legislative history seems to favor the dissent on that one.
  • The court majority says that HHS must offer the same “least restrictive” accommodations (i.e. the no cost work-around) to for-profit corporations with sole family owners with strong religious beliefs as they make for the churches who teach those beliefs. The dissent says that church exemptions are for genuine “churches” not for the corporations owned and run by people with genuine religious beliefs.
  • Finally the dissent says the majority completely ignores the rights and interests of the men and women employees who also have religious beliefs that may be at complete variance with their employer about the value of contraceptive services. The ACA’s design of covered benefits for all Americans assumes that most Americans will continue to get full scope coverage through their jobs and not through a government program (like Covered California) that is only available to those without an offer of affordable job-based coverage or Medi-Cal that is only available to the poor. The majority opinion reiterates that government can offer the workaround or can expand the Title X, Family Planning Act to reach those men and women employees who cannot afford contraception.

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