Hobby Lobby in a nutshell: Dara Purvis explains Supreme Court decision


A national chain of craft stores, Hobby Lobby, along with Conestoga Wood Specialties, a woodworking businesses incorporated in Pennsylvania filed suit stating the Affordable Care Act (ACA) colloquially known as “Obamacare” forced them to provide certain types of contraceptives (Plan B, IUD’s, birth control pills) to their employees that violated their religious beliefs. Both businesses are closely held corporations, which means the business is owned by a limited number of people and its stock is not publicly traded.

Hobby Lobby wanted the same accommodations as religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations. After discussion with such groups, the government issued regulations specifying that they sign a form that says they object to providing insurance that covers contraceptives, and then the insurance company itself pays for that portion of the coverage out of its own funds, not what the organization pays the insurance company.

They also believe that supporting and financing their company health care plan in a way that provides their employees with the means to destroy a fertilized egg makes them complicit in a sinful and immoral act.

What was the basis of the owners’ religious objections?

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are owned by family members with shared religious beliefs. Those beliefs hold that life begins at conception and that any birth control method that may result in the destruction of a fertilized egg is a form of abortion and killing that is forbidden by their faith. Even birth control pills, which prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus and developing into a pregnancy, fall into this category. There’s considerable scientific and moral disagreement regarding whether that’s an accurate description of the medical process, and even if so whether it should be understood as an abortion.

Did the First Amendment's guarantee of free exercise of religion apply in the Hobby Lobby case?

No. Instead of analyzing the case from a constitutional perspective, the high court examined whether the ACA’s contraception mandate complied with the requirements of a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Why didn’t the First Amendment apply in the Hobby Lobby case?

A Supreme Court decision by Justice Scalia called Employment Division v. Smith dealt with very similar arguments: members of a Native American church had taken peyote, an illegal drug, as part of religious ceremonies. When they were fired for taking peyote, and couldn’t get unemployment benefits because of the reason they were fired, they argued that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a right to free exercise of religion, protected their use of peyote.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and held that laws that are generally applied to everyone and don’t target a religious practice don’t implicate the First Amendment’s free exercise right and thus aren’t subjected to a more rigorous analysis that would be more likely to find such laws unconstitutional and strike them down.

In response, Congress passed RFRA, which stated even if a law is generally applied and doesn’t target a religious practice, if the law substantially burdens a person’s exercise of their religion, courts should apply the more rigorous analysis known as strict scrutiny.

In the Hobby Lobby case, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga argued that even though Hobby Lobby is a for-profit business, it should be protected under RFRA, and that paying premiums for insurance that could be used to cover contraceptives was a substantial burden of the business’s religious rights. The companies also had arguments rooted in the First Amendment, but the Supreme Court held that it could resolve the case using only the statutory arguments.

What was the basis for the majority opinion?

Five justices (Alito, Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Kennedy)  agreed with Hobby Lobby, and held that closely held corporations do have rights to the free exercise of their religion, and that paying for insurance that covered contraceptives was a substantial burden on those rights. In other words, Americans have the right to hold religious beliefs and the government cannot force them to act in ways that violate those beliefs.

Furthermore, the majority pointed to the regulations governing how nonprofit religious groups can receive exemptions from the coverage by filling out a form as evidence that the government could still achieve the goals of the ACA’s insurance coverage without burdening Hobby Lobby’s claimed religious rights.

What was the basis for the minority opinion?

Four dissenting justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor) said the mandate was not coercive of religious beliefs because it only required the religious owners to support a health insurance program. Since it would be up to each employee to decide which services to choose, the owners’ part in that choice was too attenuated to trigger any religious protections.

Additionally, they argued that the decision could allow incredibly broad exemptions to businesses based on the asserted religious beliefs of the corporations. Ginsburg was particularly concerned with the impact that granting religious rights to businesses will have on women, specifically the female employees of those businesses. Those women may not share the religious beliefs of the people who own Hobby Lobby or other such corporations, and certainly can’t be understood to share the religious faith of the business itself, but under the majority decision, the health care provided to those women will be different.

What is the significance of this decision?

As Justice Ginsburg points out in the dissent, thousands of women work for companies, which can now claim that paying insurance premiums that could be used to provide contraceptives violates the company’s religious beliefs. Although “closely held corporation” may be a term unfamiliar to most people before this case, more than 90 percent of corporations in the country are closely held, and theoretically all of them could claim these kinds of religious exemptions.

What is the impact of this decision?

You might still think that the practical significance is small, since if all the corporations then have to do is fill out the form that religious nonprofits do to make sure that the insurance company itself (rather than the nonprofit) provides the contraceptive coverage, the female employees will still eventually get the same coverage. 

However, three days after the Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court issued an emergency order stating that having to fill out the form is itself a substantial burden of the religious rights of nonprofit organizations. In that case, Wheaton College v. Burwell, which will be decided fully in the future, Wheaton College argued that because filling out the form means that the insurance company provides coverage for contraceptives, filling out the form still leads to abortions.

The Supreme Court, at least in the emergency order, agreed and granted an injunction saying the college doesn’t have to fill out that form and send it to its insurance company, and instead it should be the government’s responsibility to try to identify and provide coverage for women who work for such organizations.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent from the emergency order – which itself is very unusual – pointing out that the order undercuts the logic used in Hobby Lobby.  She stated the injunction indicates that businesses claiming a religious objection to things, like insurance coverage of contraceptives, will be able to refuse to meet any requirement relating to the religious belief, even simply signing a form.

Her dissent continues, stating the Hobby Lobby decision purports to be a narrow ruling that wouldn’t broadly affect contraceptive coverage, given the accommodation available to nonprofits. Seventy-two hours later, the court said that accommodation was likely unconstitutional. That certainly, as Sotomayor put it, undermines confidence in the Supreme Court’s reasoning.

It’s also important that such objections aren’t limited to contraceptive coverage. Other businesses have already begun trying to apply the Hobby Lobby decision to say they don’t have to comply with regulations that forbid businesses from discriminating against LGBT employees.

Why is this case important to law students? 

First, it’s always important and exciting for law students to learn areas of the law that are changing, and this law is certainly changing quickly. Second, this case is directly related to some of the most contentious debates in the political world as well as the legal world. On the one hand, you can focus on the interaction of the First Amendment, federal statutes, and federal regulations, and have a detailed and challenging analysis of a very complex system of constitutional law and health policy. On the other hand, the decision immediately became a flashpoint in political discourse – one colorful example was Fox News reporter Jesse Watters using Hobby Lobby’s arguments about contraceptives to coin the term “Beyonce voters,” dismissing single ladies as “depend[ing] on government because they’re not depending on their husbands.” Hobby Lobby is directly tied to how gendered political rhetoric has been in recent years, not just legal minutiae.

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Dara Purvis

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Dara Purvis is an assistant professor of law at Penn State Law. A scholar of family law, contracts, feminist legal theory, and sexuality and the law, she holds a J.D. from Yale and a master's from University of Cambridge. 

Last Updated July 22, 2015