Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Strikes Again, But Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner Strikes Out

Posted in: Constitutional Law

The effects from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby are now rippling through the country. Most recently, the Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner applied the decision in a way that further undermines women’s access to reproductive health care and that violates the Constitution.

A Short History of Women’s Health Care Coverage

The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate was not a new innovation in health care law. Health insurance plans in many states—when health insurance was still primarily a state power—did not fully cover many important medical services for women. State by state, health advocates pushed governments to require insurance companies to include within coverage health care ranging from mammograms to contraception. Many states did so, including Wisconsin, which enacted WI Stat. § 609.805 and § 632.895(17), which mandate the provision of reproductive health care to women.

Conservative lawmakers in Wisconsin have tried to enact a religious exemption to this provision of women’s medical care but have so far not succeeded. Thus, the law of Wisconsin is that women must be provided contraception coverage in health care plans.

The Federal RFRA May Not Be Used to Disable State Law

Long before Hobby Lobby was decided, in 1997, the Supreme Court held that RFRA was unconstitutional in Boerne v. Flores. At a bare minimum, the decision held that RFRA may not be imposed to disable state laws, because it is a severe violation of federalism and the Constitution’s inherent limits on the federal government. The Court held that RFRA’s extreme and onerous standard could not be imposed on the states. The result was that RFRA may only be applied to federal law, if at all.

It is my view that RFRA is unconstitutional in all of its applications, not simply as applied to state laws, because it violates the separation of powers principle embodied in the Constitution, Article V’s constitutional amendment procedures, and the principle of separation of church and state. But that is a debate for another day and not relevant here.

The Hobby Lobby decision did nothing to change this constitutional reality. The Court applied RFRA to federal law, the ACA’s contraception mandate, and held that RFRA shields for-profit nonreligious corporations from the federal ACA. The decision was only an interpretation of this unfortunate federal statute, which was not mandated by the Constitution, but rather a sui generis addition to free exercise law. Indeed, the Court made it quite clear that it was not holding that the First Amendment mandated an exemption for religious business owners to deprive their employees of coverage for ordinary medical care. In other words, the Court found that Hobby Lobby had a statutory right, not a constitutional right, to block certain medical coverage.

The upshot is that the decision had no effect on state laws mandating health coverage for women, or any other state law.

Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance Applies Hobby Lobby Unconstitutionally

The Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance earlier this week announced that it would no longer impose the state’s contraception mandate on religious employers, because of the Hobby Lobby decision, saying that the state law was “pre-empted.” That is simply wrong, and a number of organizations are saying just that, including the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

This is not how Hobby Lobby can affect state laws.

How Hobby Lobby Could Affect State Laws

The Hobby Lobby decision could, however, affect state laws in other ways. While it is not binding on any state law, in those states where a state RFRA has been enacted, the state courts could rely upon it for their reasoning. That is not unconstitutional, though it would be unfortunate to see the Court majority’s far-fetched interpretation also expanding the state versions of extreme religious liberty. State courts should be acutely aware that Hobby Lobby was decided by a deeply divided Court by a vote of 5-4.

State courts could reasonably reject the Court majority’s interpretation of RFRA’s language. First, they can and should hold that a RFRA does not and should not grant rights to for-profit nonreligious corporations. The federal RFRA now does because five members of the Court said so, while four maintained that it should not. State law does not mandate the same result.

Second, they can and should hold that no plaintiff can satisfy the “substantial burden” requirement of a RFRA by invoking what amounts to an attenuated, psychic burden like Hobby Lobby’s.

Third, they can and should hold that no state RFRA claimant can use a state RFRA for purposes of imposing a religious actor’s beliefs on others, as Hobby Lobby’s owner’s beliefs have now been foisted on its employees. The Hobby Lobby majority forced RFRA into a violation of the separation of church and state with this element of its reasoning.

Why can they do this? Because the federal RFRA is a mere statute, and so are the state RFRAs. Despite the pervasive “rights talk” about “religious liberty” by RFRA supporters, the religious liberty accorded by these statutes is neither necessary nor constitutionally required.

The one certainty amidst the post-Hobby Lobby uncertainty is that state governments may not treat the decision as a necessary threat to state laws. Under Boerne, RFRA may not threaten, pre-empt, or invalidate state law.

5 responses to “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Strikes Again, But Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner Strikes Out”

  1. ingeborg oppenheimer says:

    what i can’t understand is how the iud can be defined as an abortifacient,
    inasmuch as it is a barrier contraceptive, similar to the condom. in other words
    it prevents any meeting of sperm and egg, so there is no way that the result of
    using an iud can be viewed legitimately – either morally or factually – as the
    terminating of a fertilized egg. how did hobby lobby get away with that one?

  2. pmbalele says:

    Watch out-religious fanatics in Wisconsin will interpret Hobby Lobby as trumping state laws. And I believe this coming to Wisconsin where the legislature is imbedded with Christian zealots. These Wisconsin Repubs want to control women. First they passed the unequal pay for women and men doing the same job. Now Wisconsin women can be paid less than men doing the same job and have no recourse to whine in Wisconsin. Surely, Wisconsin will soon be a Sharia state. This is especially if Scott Walker is re-elected.

  3. Joe Paulson says:

    As to for-profits:

    Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan, dissenting.

    We agree with Justice Ginsburg that the plaintiffs’ challenge to
    the contraceptive coverage requirement fails on the merits. We need
    not and do not decide whether either for-profit corporations or their
    owners may bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of
    1993. Accordingly, we join all but Part III–C–1 of Justice Ginsburg’s
    dissenting opinion.

  4. David Ricardo says:

    Just an excellent article, succinct and to the point, as articulate as one could ever hope for.

  5. wayne says:

    AG Van Hollen made it very clear in the same sex marriage decision that it is his sworn duty to defend Wisconsin’s laws. There are statutes on the books which the Insurance Commissioner wishes “not to enforce”. I fully expect that Van Hollen will sue the Insurance Commissioner to obtain full enforcement of Wisconsin Law. When, Mr Van Hollen?????