Civil and Human Rights

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood v. Burwell

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood v. Burwell—consolidated for Supreme Court review—raised the question of whether for-profit, secular corporations could deny their employees coverage for contraceptives in their group health insurance plans, a requirement under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Case Summary

Plaintiffs Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood argued that for-profit, secular corporations are entitled to protection under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and/or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), and that the ACA’s requirements violated the corporations’ free exercise rights. They also argued that the ACA’s requirements violated the free exercise rights of the corporations’ individual owners.

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a for-profit, secular corporation that operates more than 500 arts-and-crafts stores nationwide, challenged the ACA’s contraceptive coverage rule by claiming protections of religious freedom under the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA, which provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” The district court denied Hobby Lobby’s request for a preliminary injunction. On June 27, 2013, the full Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that the corporate plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their RFRA claims. Specifically, the court held that for-profit corporations are “persons” exercising religion for purposes of RFRA and that the for-profit corporations had established a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion as a matter of law. The federal government filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the case.

On October 21, 2013, Constitutional Accountability Center filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in Hobby Lobby and reverse the Tenth Circuit’s unprecedented extension of what it means to engage in the free exercise of religion. On November 26, 2013, the Supreme Court granted certiorari, consolidating the case with Conestoga Wood v. Burwell, which presents the same issues. Conestoga Wood, a for-profit, secular corporation that manufactures wood products and employs more than 900 individuals, also seeks to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives to its employees on the ground that providing such coverage violates the free exercise rights of both the corporation and its individual owners. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected this claim.

On January 28, 2014, CAC filed a merits-stage amicus curiae brief in the consolidated cases urging the Court to reject the free exercise and RFRA claims of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood and uphold the ACA’s contraception coverage requirement as it applies to secular, for-profit corporations. Our brief demonstrated that the First Amendment’s explicit protection of the “free exercise” of religion was intended to protect a basic right of human dignity and conscience. At no time in the more than two-hundred-year span between the ratification of the First Amendment and the passage of RFRA were secular, for-profit corporations understood to have the fundamental right to the free exercise of religion.

Indeed, from our Nation’s Founding until today, the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty has been viewed as a personal right, inextricably linked to a uniquely human capacity to express devotion to a god and act on the basis of reason and conscience. As we argued in our brief, business corporations have never shared in this fundamental aspect of our constitutional tradition for the obvious reason that a business corporation lacks the basic human capacities—reason, dignity, and conscience—at the core of the free exercise right. To be sure, the owners of the corporate entities have their own personal free exercise rights, but those rights are not implicated by the contraception coverage requirement because federal law does not require the individuals who own a company to personally provide health care coverage. The law places requirements only on the corporate entities. As the Court held in Braswell v. United States, when individuals act in their official capacity as corporate agents, they “cannot be said to be exercising their personal rights and duties nor to be entitled to their purely personal privileges.”

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood on March 25, 2014.

To learn more about the contraception mandate and corporations’ rights, read CAC’s issue brief, Can Corporations Pray?: The Affordable Care Act, the Contraception Mandate, and the Free Exercise Rights of For-Profit Corporations.

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a sharply divided 5-4 decision, ruling that regulations that required closely held for-profit corporations to provide coverage of certain kinds of contraception to their employees violated RFRA. Writing for the majority, Justice Alito determined that RFRA was “designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty” which the Court believed Congress intended to include “corporations within RFRA’s definition of ‘persons.’” The opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Scalia (Justice Kennedy filed a concurring opinion), continued to say that “protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations…protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control these companies.”

In a scathing dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Justice Ginsburg criticized the majority opinion for its “startling breadth,” and its potential to open the floodgates to claims by corporations for religious exemptions. Justice Ginsburg criticized the unprecedented nature of the majority’s ruling, writing that “[u]ntil this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law,” and that such an exemption in this case would “deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

Case Timeline

More from Civil and Human Rights