When Does Religious Freedom Trump the Law?

Supreme Court case illustrates ‘big theme’ in U.S. politics, CNN analyst says

By Dana Wilkie Mar 18, 2014

A Supreme Court case pitting a corporation’s religious views against contraception coverage for employees is just one example of an emerging theme in American jurisprudence, a senior CNN analyst told those attending SHRM’s 2014 Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.

“The question of the religious views of the owners of a company and how that can affect customers and employees is a growing area of law,” said CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin. “That whole category of cases is something that we’re going to see a lot more of.”

The case, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., raises a question that the high court tackled in its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission: Are corporations “people” with the same rights as citizens?

Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of about 500 arts and crafts stores employing 13,000 workers, wants exemptions from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requirement that certain for-profit corporations provide cost-free contraception for employees. Hobby Lobby’s owners object to four contraceptive devices, including the morning-after pill, that they believe can trigger abortions; they are arguing that as Christians, they would be violating their religion’s prohibition against abortion if they complied with the ACA.

In briefs filed with the high court, the federal government argued that the owner’s religious beliefs can’t be transferred to their business entity and that Hobby Lobby should be fined $1.3 million a day for each day it refuses to provide workers with cost-free contraception.

The owners’ religious objections shouldn’t allow Hobby Lobby to “deny to thousands of employees … statutorily guaranteed access to benefits of great importance to health and well-being,” Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote in his brief.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on March 25.

Toobin, who has written two books on the Supreme Court, told conference attendees that the case raises “a lot of difficult factual issues,” including whether some forms of birth control actually amount to abortion and whether a corporation’s owners “can have their religious rights trump the rights of employees.”

“It illustrates a big theme in American politics right now … which is the use of religious objections to trump” legal mandates, Toobin said.

The nation recently saw a similar case in Arizona. In February, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a controversial bill that would have allowed business owners to refuse service to gays based on religious beliefs. Similar legislation has cropped up in 18 other states.

And in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court held in 2010 that corporations enjoy the same free-speech rights as individuals. In that case, the conservative lobbying group Citizens United wanted to advertise a film critical of Hillary Clinton during television broadcasts, an action the commission argued violated the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The Supreme Court, however, held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations or labor unions.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect