In the past few decades, access to contraception has been a hotly debated topic. Religious organizations have objected to the increased availability of these products for moral reasons, while others have argued that contraceptives should be easier to access than they are currently. The Supreme Court has heard several court cases regarding contraception over the years, but one landmark case in particular that stands out would be the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2008). This case not only involves a debate over contraception and religious exceptions to it, but it also revisits a controversial court case from earlier in the decade; the precedent set in Citizens United is on display here as well, as the role of corporations and their rights compared to individuals.
In this case, the Affordable Care Act also comes into question, as it supposedly covers 20 different forms of contraception for those with medical insurance, typically provided by employers. There are fines for companies who do not comply with the act and provide the services they are supposed to, but religious employers and nonprofits were allowed an exemption if they allowed the employees to pay for the services themselves. The Hobby Lobby Corporation is owned by the Green family, who belong to the Christian faith, and they believe that their closely held beliefs allow them to qualify for an exemption from providing these services to their employees. However, the exemption to providing contraception to employees was not given to them, so Hobby Lobby sued in order to obtain this exemption. They argued that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), laws must be neutrally applied in order to avoid violating religious beliefs of individuals, and they felt that these regulations placed a substantial burden on their ability to practice their religion.
Justice Samuel Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, and one of the major issues of the case was deciding whether or not corporations share the same religious rights as people (a la Citizens United and the rights of corporations). The Court found that they do have certain religious freedoms that would apply in this case, and since Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs as a collective are “closely held”, they are entitled to protection under the law. This means that the government must use the least restrictive means possible to enforce the contraception provision of Obamacare, and the Court ruled that they failed to remain neutral to religion in mandating that companies provide access to the 20 types of contraception covered by the ACA. By fining the organization for their refusal to provide the contraception, the government was found to be placing a substantial burden on the religious exercise of Hobby Lobby, and the Court found that this was not permissible under the law. The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, noting that this ruling should be interpreted narrowly in future cases.
The Court’s disclaimer is encouraging, as this ruling only applies to the contraception mandate and the precedent it set would not apply to other areas. However, there are flaws with the Court’s judgment. The Citizens United ruling was problematic to begin with, but now its influence has spread to the area of religion. Granting the same corporations the same rights as people in terms of religion could be very dangerous. Although the ruling is to be applied narrowly, it is up to the Court to ensure that this happens, and the precedent in this case could grant too much autonomy to corporations in placing regulations on their employees for religious reasons. It will be interesting to see which direction the Court will go in when future cases are decided within this realm.
*All information for this case was taken from https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf