Do Corporations Have Religious Rights? New Crux of Contraceptives Court Fight
For-profit companies are still not exempt from the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) employer-provided contraceptives mandate, but that could change if Hobby Lobby successfully argues its case in federal court.
In the highest-profile of 60 lawsuits of this nature, the retail-craft giant asked the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for an exemption from the HHS mandate Thursday, arguing that for-profit business owners "shouldn't face fines for not complying with mandatory contraceptive coverage simply because their business makes a profit."
It's an argument that courts previously have been hesitant to address, because it means weighing in on a key question, which CT addressed in February: Do corporations have federal religious freedom protection under the First Amendment?
According to the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life, individuals and faith-based organizations have clear religious liberty protections. When it comes to for-profit companies owned by Christians, however, things get murky.
"Before it can rule on whether Hobby Lobby should be exempt from the contraception mandate, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals first must determine whether the company has the same religious liberty rights as individuals and religious organizations," said Pew in its analysis.
The Supreme Court ruled last January in its Citizens United decision that corporations' political contributions are federally protected speech under the First Amendment. By that logic, says Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund, which represents Hobby Lobby, people who have organized in a corporate form don't give up their right to free exercise of religion.
Federal appeals courts have split thus far. In the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard two cases this week, Judge Diane S. Sykes said that "because corporations have rights to political speech, it would make no sense for them to be denied First Amendment rights to exercise religion," reports the Washington Post.
The Supreme Court has not yet addressed whether or not corporations are included in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), so Hobby Lobby's case could go all the way to the country's highest court, notes the newspaper. If the appeals process moves quickly, the case could reach the Supreme Court in time for its October term.
Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania district court is reinstating Geneva College's case against HHS. The lawsuit was dismissed for lack of ripeness, because Geneva is exempted from compliance as part of the White House's proposed changes announced in February. Now, though, the school says the difference between the Obama Administration's existing rules and its proposed rules leaves the school unable to negotiate student insurance plans for the coming school year.