The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, found today that the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, to the extent that it applies to closely-held corporations, violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And in another 5-4 decision, the Court found that the First Amendment does not allow home healthcare workers to be compelled to pay agency fees to the Service Employees International Union.

The following are summaries of each decision:

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: Regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Affordable Care Act required that employers provide coverage for 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including four that can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the mother’s womb. This is known as the “contraceptive mandate.”

The HHS has already exempted religious employers and religious non-profits from complying with the contraceptive mandate if they object to doing so on religious grounds.

Two closely held, for-profit companies — Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialities and their owners — challenged the mandate as applied to them on the ground that it violated the owners’ religious beliefs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) ruled against Conestoga, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming) found in favor of Hobby Lobby.

The Supreme Court decision issued today held, 5-4, that even for-profit businesses are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” There is an exception if the government can show “that application of the burden . . . (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that . . . interest.”

Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas.

Justice Kennedy wrote a concurrence.

Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor, and joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan as to all but Part III-C-1 (arguing that for-profit corporations cannot “exercise religion”). Justices Breyer and Kagan filed a separate dissent.

Some quick highlights from the majority decision:

*For-profit corporations are capable of “exercising religion.”

*The contraceptive mandate forces the company owners to violate their religious beliefs that life begins at conception.

*It is not a viable solution to tell these companies that they can forgo providing health insurance coverage at all, given the owners’ beliefs that providing health insurance is consistent with their religious beliefs, and given the monetary penalties associated with failing to provide coverage.

*Even if providing access to the four contraceptive methods were a compelling governmental interest, there are other ways for the government to achieve its interest, such as directly providing coverage to the women who want it, or extending the same exception that it has made for religious non-profits to for-profits.

*The decision’s rationale does not necessarily apply to companies with religious objections to, for example, providing coverage for vaccinations or blood transfusions, or protect religious for-profit employers from claims for unlawful discrimination.

Harris v. Quinn

By David Phippen

In the other decision issued today, the Supreme Court struck down an Illinois requirement that home health care workers — who were reimbursed through a federal Medicaid-funded state program — pay agency fees to the Service Employees International Union even though they did not want to join the union as members.

The majority opinion in the Court’s 5-4 decision was written by Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, dissented.

The Illinois requirement was created by a regulatory and legislative scheme, and addressed in a collective bargaining agreement with the SEIU.

 

The Court held that the home health care workers were “state employees” only to a limited extent and that the state could not show a compelling state interest in forcing them to support a group they did not want to support, in violation of their rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But the Court rejected a broader argument by the workers that any agency fee requirement for public employees violated the First Amendment in that it forced political support to a union for petitioning a government entity.

A prior Supreme Court decision, Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Educ., allows states and unions to enter into collective bargaining agreements that require payment of dues by members or agency fees by individuals who do not want to be members. Today’s decision leaves that earlier decision in place, but the Court today said that the healthcare worker in Harris were primarily employees of their customers, not of the state.