Perhaps the most highly charged case of the 2013 term began life as a series of modified “corporate personhood” jokes. Does the post–Citizens United notion of corporate personhood include the right of a corporation to have and practice a religious faith? Can a craft store go to church? Where does it park? Does it quilt its own hat?
By the end of the term, nobody was laughing—especially not women. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court held, by a 5–4 vote, that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate violated the religious-freedom rights of corporations.
The ACA required that many employers provide comprehensive insurance—including pricey birth-control coverage—to their workers. The pill can cost upward of $25 a month, and the onetime cost of an IUD can reach $900, not including the cost of the doctor’s visit to have it inserted—sums that can be hugely consequential for most women workers. For some, these benefits can mean the difference between life and death, and they’re essential to economic parity and professional autonomy for most others. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent: “[T]he cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.” But the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby and a cabinetmaker called Conestoga Wood Specialties argued in their pleadings that providing female workers with certain birth-control devices (specifically the IUD) and morning-after pills violated the business owners’ religious convictions because these things were used to cause abortions—a claim belied by medical science and the Food and Drug Administration, but deeply felt by the corporations’ owners.
In an unprecedented extension of religious freedom, the Supreme Court did two remarkable things. The majority recognized “closely held corporations”— a term left undefined in the ruling, but which, by some estimates, encompasses the vast majority of US corporations—as “persons” capable of “exercis[ing] religion.” The Court then determined that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the religious rights of the employers ultimately outweigh the rights and economic needs of the women who work for them. In so doing, the Court allowed these companies, based on the asserted religious objections of their owners, to withhold basic health-insurance coverage from women.
In his controlling opinion, Justice Samuel Alito explained that the decision was simple in part because for-profit companies should get the same accommodation that the Obama administration had extended to religious nonprofit employers, such as Catholic colleges and hospitals. It was also simple, Alito asserted, because the ruling applied only to the contraceptive mandate, not to the host of other religious convictions held by devout employers. In her blazing dissent, Justice Ginsburg wondered how such a limitation could work going forward: “Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations…?”