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March 26, 2014

Can corporations exercise religious rights? SCOTUS hears challenge to contraceptive mandate


On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments from two private for-profit companies that claim the Affordable Care Act (the president’s signature healthcare law, also known as “Obamacare”) violates the religious freedom of the companies’ owners.

The challenge is from the Conestoga Furniture Company in East Earl, Pa., and by Hobby Lobby, a national chain of craft stores, both of whom are run by devoutly religious families who say that including certain contraceptives in their health insurance violates their religious convictions.

On the other side of the argument is the federal government and the Department of Health and Human Services, which wrote a mandate following a report from the Institute of Medicine that concluded that contraceptives help reduce unwanted pregnancies, but many women do not have the resources to buy them.

The government argues that giving companies the choice to not carry contraceptives creates inequities for women who work for companies that apply for religious exemptions in the health care plan.

But Hobby Lobby argues that women have a choice of working there or not.

“There’s no way we’re taking anybody’s rights away,” said CEO David Green. “It’s our rights that are being infringed upon to require us to do something that’s against our conscience.”

This has brought up the larger question of whether private for-profit corporations can practice religion. The companies are arguing their rights are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which states that the federal government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

“A corporation is very unlikely ever to be able to establish a claim that it has a conscience that is being violated or overridden,” said Walter Dellinger, an attorney for the Guttmacher Institute arguing in favor of the health care law. “There just isn’t a tradition of a for-profit corporation having a soul or being faced with damnation.”

The implications of the court’s ruling could be enormous, defining what laws a person or corporation may challenge on religious grounds and under what circumstances government policy might override the exercise of individual religious faith.

Warm up questions
  1. What rights are you granted under the First Amendment?
  2. What does it mean to have freedom of religion?
  3. What is the job of the Supreme Court?
Discussion questions
  1. During questioning, Justice Sonya Sotomayor asked the corporations’ lawyer, “Who determines the corporate religion? The majority of shareholders? The corporate officers? Is it 51 percent?” Why do you think Justice Sotomayor asked this question, and what point do you think she is trying to make?
  2. What are some other laws or regulations that corporations might challenge on the basis of religious freedom?
  3. Do you think there is a better way for the government to ensure both the rights of companies with religious owners and their female employees than the contraception mandate? If so, how should that affect the outcome of the case?
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