Does a Corporation have Religious Freedom under the ACA?

Those with conflicting political views may still agree that many questions remain unanswered regarding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a “Obamacare.” The US Supreme Court recently agreed to address at least one of those lingering questions when it granted certiorari to hear Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores. The issue in Hobby Lobby is whether an employer may be subject to fines under the ACA for failing to provide health insurance coverage that includes the provision of birth control to employees. The plaintiff claims that this provision in the Act impermissibly conflicts with its religious views.

Under the Act, employers of a certain size must offer insurance coverage that meets minimum standards, including the provision of birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay or be subject to a fine of up to $1.3 million daily. The Act exempts religiously affiliated nonprofit employers (such as Catholic hospitals) as well as employers with less than 50 employees from financing such coverage. However, for-profit companies remain bound by the requirement, regardless of the religious beliefs espoused by their owners.

The owners of Hobby Lobby oppose contraception. Hobby Lobby avers that it counts as a “person” whose religious expression, according to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (“RFRA”), should not be “substantially burdened” by a law unless there is a “compelling government interest.” Significantly, the court must decide if RFRA protection applies only to “persons” or can also be extended to companies, churches, and universities.

These cases throw into sharp contrast the government’s interest in providing universal healthcare with the interests in some corporations of ensuring that their corporate policies comport with their religious beliefs. Supporters of Hobby Lobby’s stance argue that ACA will force some Americans to violate their religious beliefs, and in the process of reorganizing the health care system, will impose unfair obligations on corporations.

On the other hand, proponents of the ACA’s comprehensive coverage mandate argue that treating companies as people for the purpose of religious freedom would permit companies to deny employees the health coverage to which they are otherwise entitled by federal law, based only on the religious objections of the individuals who control the companies. Further, they aver, recognizing a corporation as a person for the purposes of religious freedom could permit employers to pick and choose what is covered under a health care plan, and may include denial of coverage of transplants, blood transfusions, vaccines, or psychological care, treatment modalities which are opposed by some religions.

In weighing these interests, the Supreme Court will have to take a hard look at both RFRA and its former decisions regarding corporations’ right to free speech, in deciding whether corporations, like individuals have the right to religious liberty.