The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on two related cases – Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius – both which are challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception policy. At a certain level, it’s still hard to believe this is even the subject of an ongoing legal dispute.
For those who may need a refresher, federal health care law treats birth control as routine preventive care, which is covered by insurance and available to consumers without copays. Houses of worship are exempt.
Some private, for-profit business owners, however, have said the law isn’t fair. As they see it, their corporations are people with their own religious beliefs – which just so happen to mirror the corporation’s owners – and the corporations’ religion disagrees with birth control. As these businessmen see it, they’re entitled to impose their personal beliefs on their employees through corporate personhood.
The argument itself is simply extraordinary.
The Supreme Court has consistently resisted claims for religious exemptions from laws that are neutral and apply broadly when the exemptions would significantly harm other people, as this one would. To approve it would flout the First Amendment, which forbids government from favoring one religion over another – or over nonbelievers. […]These companies are not religious organizations, nor are they affiliated with religious organizations. But the owners say they are victims of an assault on religious liberty because they personally disapprove of certain contraceptives. They are wrong, and the Supreme Court’s task is to issue a decisive ruling saying so. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the owners trying to impose their religious beliefs on thousands of employees.
As we’ve discussed, it may seem ridiculous that a business owner’s theology can somehow be transferred to his or her corporation – which, again, is apparently supposed to be treated as a person – but some lower courts have found the argument compelling. Indeed, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that if Hobby Lobby’s owners say Hobby Lobby’s spiritual conscience opposes contraception so strongly that Hobby Lobby’s employees shouldn’t have access to birth control under their health plan, then so be it.
On the other hand, as the 3rd Circuit explained over the summer, courts have “long recognized the distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself.” Ruling that “a for-profit corporation can engage in religious exercise” would “eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”
Since the two appeals courts disagreed, the Supreme Court was all but guaranteed to take up the case.
You’re likely to hear a lot of talk today about the Obama administration interfering with private citizens’ religious liberty, but that’s precisely why it’s important to appreciate the distinction that has always existed: the law makes requirements of businesses (who don’t have theological beliefs), not people (who do). No one is imposing a burden on the corporation’s executives personally, just the corporation.
If Hobby Lobby and Conestoga prevail at the Supreme Court, there’s no reason to think corporations would have to stop at contraception. If a business owner’s personal religious beliefs oppose mental health care, then that, too, could be excluded from employees’ coverage. The same goes for HIV tests, vaccines, drug treatment, or literally any other area of health care a corporation’s owners deemed morally objectionable.
For more on this, Sahil Kapur has a helpful overview and a separate piece on Justice Scalia, who’ll have to engage in quite a bit of contortionism to rule against the Obama administration. Also be sure to take a look at Irin Carmon’s piece on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and its role in the case.
As for the politics surrounding the legal dispute, we’ll have a separate piece on that a little later today.
ADDING: Related video: