Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Case of For-Profit Companies Seeking Religious Exemption from ACA Requirements

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March 25, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in two cases challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that FDA-approved contraception be among the basic preventive health care services included in insurance coverage for employees, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialities Corporation v. Sibelius.

Lambda Legal, joined by GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality (GLMA) and Pride at Work—AFL CIO, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in these cases urging the Supreme Court to reject arguments made by these for-profit companies that they should be allowed to block their employees’ access to insurance coverage for contraception required by the Affordable Care Act because the companies’ owners claim birth control violates their religious beliefs.

Learn more about ACA and religious exemptions at the Supreme Court.

Jennifer C. Pizer, Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Director, Law and Policy Project, attended today’s arguments and said:

As we feared, the divisions among lines of questioning highlight that the implications of these cases likely go far beyond reproductive health and intricacies of the Affordable Care Act. And the limiting principles offered by each side rarely seemed to assuage the questioners.

For example, although Hobby Lobby's counsel assured that these cases don't risk a flood of religious objections because birth control is specially 'sensitive,' he provided no cogent line that would prevent similar challenges to employee insurance for blood transfusion, vaccination, or HIV medication, or to other workplace protections to which some may object on religious grounds. And when Solicitor General Verrilli stressed that the Supreme Court has never before held that for-profit corporations have religious rights that trump protections Congress has mandated for employees, Chief Justice Roberts countered that there are no cases saying the reverse either.

Based on these and other exchanges, there now is every reason to fear proliferating challenges to laws preventing firing of unwed mothers, requiring benefits for same-sex spouses, and forbidding sex discrimination generally. And if the Court does rule that bosses can direct how the health insurance money they pay will be used by their workers, then what’s to stop them from forbidding employee use of the wages they pay to buy liquor, pork, dance music or coffee. Or a gift for a gay friend’s wedding? This is a recipe for a dramatic restructuring of our government’s ability to limit religiously motivated conduct that harms others in business settings.

In its amicus brief to the Court, Lambda Legal argued that granting for-profit companies the religious exemptions they sought would open the floodgates of religion-based discrimination targeting LGBT individuals, people living with HIV and other vulnerable populations, denying them equal compensation, health care access, and other fair treatment in commercial interactions. The proliferating efforts to enshrine religious exemptions in law at all levels, most recently embodied in Arizona’s SB 1062, underscore the real danger these cases pose to nondiscrimination protections, licensed professionals’ standards of care, and health and safety regulations generally.

The brief argued that large for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Products should follow the same rules as other companies that sell products to the general public and should not be free to impose their owners’ religious views on their employees, such as by selectively blocking insurance coverage in order to interfere with their employees’ private decisions about family planning and other medical treatment.

The two cases came before the Supreme Court with conflicting appellate court rulings. In the Hobby Lobby case, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby’s claim for an exemption from the ACA’s contraception coverage rule, while in Conestoga, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied Conestoga’s similar claim.

Learn more about the cases.

Read the press release.

Lambda Legal is grateful to the Anita May Rosenstein Foundation for partially funding the work of the Law and Policy Project.