The Narrow (and Proper) Way for the Court to Rule in Hobby Lobby’s Favor

Posted in: Constitutional Law

The Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores case argued before the Supreme Court last week raises the question whether the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores is entitled, under the Constitution or the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to be exempt from the requirement in Obamacare that employers who provide health insurance to their employees include in the insurance policy certain forms of contraceptives, the use of which for some persons (including the owners of Hobby Lobby) is forbidden by religious principles. Many commentators, ourselves included, predict that Hobby Lobby will win the case, and be found to be exempt from the Obamacare requirements by virtue of RFRA.

Yet at the oral argument, many Justices, especially Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor but also Chief Justice Roberts, pressed Hobby Lobby’s lawyer, Paul Clement, on just how far his religious-exemption argument might extend. Right out of the gate, Justice Sotomayor asked him about religiously-inspired objections to vaccines and blood transfusions. Moving beyond healthcare mandates to other federal regulations of employers, Justice Kagan asked, a few moments later: “So another employer comes in and that employer says, ‘I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws’; and then another employer comes in, ‘I have an objection to minimum wage laws;’ and then another, child labor laws. And [under] all of that [the federal government can win only if it satisfies] the exact same test [for RFRA you describe today,] which you say is this unbelievably high test?

If, as we expect, Hobby Lobby prevails, it will be very important for the preservation of other important legal principles and public policies that the Court not rule in Hobby Lobby’s favor on too broad a basis. In the space below, then, we try to identify how an opinion in Hobby Lobby’s favor should—and should not—be crafted.

Do Corporate Entities Enjoy Protection Under the RFRA?

Let us turn first to one key question under RFRA—whether its protections extend beyond natural persons to corporate entities like Hobby Lobby (a closely held for-profit “S” Corporation owned by the Green family.) We think RFRA can be found to apply, but that the Court should make clear that RFRA is designed to protect religious freedom of conscience and that a corporation itself does not have a conscience in the same sense that human beings have a conscience.

Some commentators argue that just as the Supreme Court held that corporations are persons for freedom of speech purposes in the Citizens United case, corporations must be considered persons in free exercise or RFRA cases as well. We think that analogy is mistaken, and that grounding a decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor on this analogy would be unnecessarily expansive. Freedom of speech in the context of political expenditures by corporations is an instrumental right. We protect it because of its utility for democratic decisionmaking. In Citizens United, the Court held that corporations are persons for free speech purposes for explicitly instrumental reasons—because corporations can present voices or perspectives that should be part of the marketplace of ideas.

Freedom of religion and conscience are dignitary rights. Our society protects them not because doing so serves some instrumental goal, but because accepting and living one’s life based on religious beliefs, or deciding not to live a religious life, is part of what it means to be human. Government must respect the right of human beings to make self-defining decisions and to live their lives authentically in light of those choices.

Corporations have no such dignitary rights. They do not love. They do not feel guilt or shame. They have no conscience. They will not stand before G-d to answer for their sins after they die, because they are not human. They are artificial entities that exist in perpetuity. We are inclined to agree with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion in Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of California (a compelled speech case), where he wrote: “Extension of the individual freedom of conscience decisions to business corporations strains the rationale of those cases beyond the breaking point. To ascribe to such artificial entities an ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’ for freedom of conscience purposes is to confuse metaphor with reality.” Bluntly, if we are talking about corporations in a formal sense, corporations do not have religious liberty rights.

However, in many cases corporations can be viewed as the representative of or—as our UCLA colleague Eugene Volokh has suggested—a “proxy” for individual persons and groups. Whatever protection society provides to the corporate form is intended to recognize and protect the dignity not of the entity but, of the entity’s owners or managers. An incorporated church or a religious non-profit organization satisfies this criterion. A closely-held corporation like Hobby Lobby that is not publicly traded, and that is owned by a small number of actual individuals, does so as well.

Thus, the Court could hold that RFRA protects the conscience of the owners of Hobby Lobby notwithstanding their decision to do business in a corporate form. But it should make it clear that no such argument justifies protecting the conscience of publicly-traded corporations such as General Motors or Exxon. While Justice Roberts intimated that closely-held corporations could be distinguished from publicly-traded corporations, and that the protection provided to the latter by RFRA need not be decided in this case, a more prudent and limited opinion, and one that reflects the proper understanding of dignitary rights, could resolve this question in definitive terms once and for all.

The Strict Scrutiny Test, and (the Very Limited) Relevance of Statutory Exemptions in Assessing the Weight of the Government Interest

The most important issues that the Court will have to navigate in drafting a narrow opinion relate to the standard of review imposed by RFRA. To satisfy RFRA, the government must justify its regulations under strict scrutiny; that is, the government must demonstrate that its regulations are the least restrictive way to further a compelling governmental interest. Hobby Lobby wins its case if the government fails on either prong of this rigorous standard of review.

It is important in this case to examine each of these prongs separately. Several arguments presented to the Court attempt to establish that the government lacks a compelling interest to require the cost-free provision of medical contraceptives to employees who are provided health insurance. We think these arguments are wrong on the merits, in part because they are extremely broad and expansive in their implications. If the Court concludes that the government lacks a compelling interest in Hobby Lobby, many religious claimants might successfully challenge a very wide range of laws under RFRA.

In response to the somewhat obvious intuition that women need access to contraceptives for important birth-control and health reasons, and the fact that often the safest and most effective contraception is also among the most expensive, Hobby Lobby argues that Obamacare’s preventive medicine regulations are so underinclusive that the government interests can’t be compelling. The fact that businesses that employ fewer than 50 full-time employees are not required to offer any health plan to their employees, and the fact that many current health plans that do not include cost-free preventive medicine coverage are “grandfathered in” under Obamacare so that they continue to operate without change are said to demonstrate that the government itself does not treat the public health interest it is asserting as if it were a particularly important concern.

We think Solicitor General Verrilli effectively challenged this contention during oral argument. The fact that a law is underinclusive often has little bearing on whether the government’s goal that it furthers is compelling. Important civil rights laws, such as Title VII (which prohibits race discrimination by employers), often exclude small businesses from their coverage. Indeed, most laws have more exceptions to them, or limitations to their applicability, than their basic purposes might suggest. It is common for government to serve very important interests while moving forward in a piecemeal fashion to accommodate other non-trivial interests, particularly when it is breaking new regulatory ground. And new legislative programs serving compelling interests, such as the American with Disabilities Act, may be phased in to their operation without the phase-in suggesting that the interest being served is unimportant. It is hard to argue that the government lacks a compelling public health interest in making preventive medical services more available because—in the herculean task of transforming the provision of health care in the United States—it has grandfathered in some existing plans to protect important reliance interests and to facilitate a smoother transition to the new health care system. Most problematically, if the Court holds that the government lacks a compelling state interest in Hobby Lobby, all laws with exclusions, exemptions, limitations in applicability or phase-in periods would be vulnerable to similar RFRA challenges.

Narrow Tailoring—and A Plausible Narrow Way Out in the Hobby Lobby Dispute

The second prong of the RFRA standard—which asks whether the preventive medicine regulations are the least restrictive means to accomplish the government’s compelling state interest—provides a much narrower foundation for ruling in Hobby Lobby’s favor. Here, one arguably less restrictive means by which the government could achieve its goals that seemed to generate support from several Justices at oral argument was for the government to exempt employers asserting religious objections from the regulations, while arranging for the employees of such exempt employers to receive medical contraceptive insurance coverage from an alternative source—with either the insurance company providing the coverage or the government itself incurring the cost of these benefits. Indeed, the government already grants an accommodation to religious non-profits (recall that Hobby Lobby is for-profit), and requires health care insurers to provide the disputed coverage to the employees of the accommodated non-profit employers at the insurer’s own cost. A similar accommodation could be extended to closely held for-profit employers who object to the regulations on religious grounds.

It is important to note here that this alternative would be unavailable in most cases where a for-profit business seeks a religious exemption from a general regulation; the preventive medicine insurance coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act is an unusual regulatory scheme in important respects. The benefits provided by the Act—generally available and affordable health insurance—are fungible, intangible goods that can be provided by either the public or private sector. And the Act’s beneficiaries have no reason to care about the source of the insurance.

This is not your ordinary workplace regulation. Both the goal and the operational design of the Affordable Care Act are directed toward providing affordable health insurance to all Americans, whether they are in a workplace or not. Employers are used simply as a convenient instrument to distribute healthcare to many Americans—but that is incidental to the ultimate purpose of the legislation. Indeed, for many Obamacare backers, providing these benefits through the healthcare plans of private employers was the second-best alternative. A government health insurance (“single payer”) program was thought by some to be the most desirable and efficient way of guaranteeing affordable health insurance in our society.

In other circumstances, including many mentioned by the Justices at oral argument, if the government has to bear the cost of providing religious accommodations to employers, the price tag might be prohibitively high. Or any meaningful accommodation might involve interventions that are unacceptably complex and individualized. Or, as Paul Clement pointed out, in some cases—such as RFRA claims for exemptions from civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination—the unavoidable harm caused by granting an accommodation would simply be too great. But none of those problems would arise if the government provided supplemental insurance coverage (or required health plan insurers to do so) to the employees of religiously-exempt organizations like Hobby Lobby. Indeed, if the government provided the insurance coverage, it could limit its costs in doing so by requiring any accommodated business (e.g., Hobby Lobby) to contribute whatever funds it saved by not providing the contraceptive coverage to some other public good identified by the government that would be consistent with the employer’s faith, and on which the government would otherwise be spending the public’s money. (Exempt employers would be required to offer alternative contributions to satisfy their civic obligations, in much the same way that a religious pacifist exempted from conscription as a conscientious objector would be required to perform alternative service as a condition to receiving an accommodation.)

A decision in Hobby Lobby’s favor on these “least restrictive alternative” grounds would not be completely sui generis. It would apply to some other cases. But it would be the narrowest basis for a holding in Hobby Lobby’s favor. At a minimum, it would guarantee that the Court’s decision would provide no direct support to RFRA claims for exemptions from civil rights laws.

Would Granting Hobby Lobby an Accommodation Violate the Establishment Clause?

There is one final issue about the scope of any opinion the Court will issue that has to do with a constitutional question concerning the scope of RFRA. Several commentators and amici have argued that it will violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if the Court rules in Hobby Lobby’s favor. They argue that the Establishment Clause imposes a cap or limit on religious accommodations. An accommodation violates the Establishment Clause if it goes too far and imposes too heavy a burden on third parties or the general public. Such a violation will occur if Hobby Lobby is exempt from the medical contraceptive regulations, the argument runs, because Hobby Lobby’s employees will not receive valuable public health benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled. Religious exercise cannot be privileged by accommodations if doing so imposes such a heavy cost on third parties.

One expansive rejoinder to this argument challenges the contention that the employees of an exempt employer will be harmed by the accommodation. The employees had no “right” to these benefits, after all. The government was not obligated to mandate the provision of no-cost health insurance for preventive medicine to these employees or anyone else. Indeed, the benefits are available only because of the very law to which Hobby Lobby claims to be exempt. The government isn’t harming or taking something away from employees if it (through the enactment of RFRA) decides not to provide as many benefits as it might, in order to protect religious liberty.

We think this rejoinder is overly broad and mistaken on the merits. An analogy to an early religious freedom ruling by the Court might help make the point. In some ways, the Establishment Clause argument here is the flip side of the Free Exercise claim upheld in Sherbert v. Verner, the seminal case in which the Court held that the state violated the free exercise rights of a Seventh-day Adventist when it denied her unemployment compensation because she refused jobs that required her to work on the Sabbath. In that case, as in the Affordable Care Act setting, the government was under no obligation to provide unemployment benefits to anyone, and therefore might be thought to have been free to deny benefits to persons who refused appropriate job offers. The fact that the state created the benefit scheme through an act of political discretion made no difference to the Court’s free exercise analysis in Sherbert, however, and we think it should make no difference to the application of the Establishment Clause in Hobby Lobby.

As a general matter, we believe that the loss of generally available benefits to which one would otherwise be entitled is a cognizable harm for both Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause purposes. Thus, denying an individual a generally available benefit to which she would otherwise be entitled, in order to accommodate some other person’s religious practice, is a cognizable harm for Establishment Clause purposes. And denying an individual a generally available benefit to which she would otherwise be entitled if she obeyed the dictates of her faith is a harm for Free Exercise purposes.

There is, as should be clear from our earlier analysis, a narrower ground for rejecting the argument that a judicial finding in Hobby Lobby’s favor will violate the Establishment Cause. If the Court finds in favor of Hobby Lobby, it will basically hold that if the government wants to provide medical contraceptive insurance coverage for the employees of religious employers, it will have to choose some way to do that other than by substantially burdening the employer’s religious liberty. The Court may then conclude that this holding, standing alone, does not violate the Establishment Clause because the government still retains alternative ways to accomplish its goals without burdening either the religious exercise of objecting companies or third parties. The government, as we suggested, could pick up the cost of the insurance coverage itself, and provide coverage to the employees of religiously-exempt organizations directly, or it could assign that obligation to health plan insurers—as it has done with the accommodations for religious non-profits. (And again, if it wanted to, the government could seek—and then redistribute—money from the exempt for-profit companies who are saving dollars by not offering the coverage.) This rejoinder to the Establishment Clause concern might not be available in many cases, but it is available in Hobby Lobby, and therefore should be invoked as a basis for narrowly deciding this case.