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Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. - 573 U.S. 682, 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014)


In order to ensure broad protection for religious liberty, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000bb et seq., provides that government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000bb-1(a). The Act defines “government” to include any “department” or “agency” of the United States. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000bb-2(1). If the government substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion, under the Act that person is entitled to an exemption from the rule unless the government demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000bb-1(b).


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), promulgated regulations which required specified employers' group health plans to furnish “preventive care and screenings” for women without “any cost sharing requirements." Nonexempt employers were generally required to provide coverage for the 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including the four that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. Religious employers, such as churches, were exempt from this contraceptive mandate. Under this accommodation, the insurance issuer must exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer's plan and provide plan participants with separate payments for contraceptive services without imposing any cost-sharing requirements on the employer, its insurance plan, or its employee beneficiaries. Plaintiff owners of three closely held for-profit corporations had sincere Christian beliefs that life begins at conception and that it would violate their religion to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after that point. In separate actions, they sued HHS and other federal officials and agencies (collectively HHS) under RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause, seeking to enjoin application of the contraceptive mandate insofar as it required them to provide health coverage for the four objectionable contraceptives. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third and Tenth Circuits rendered opposite rulings regarding these claims. 


Did the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 permit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to require corporations to provide health insurance coverage for contraception that violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of the corporations' owners?




The U.S. Supreme Court held that the regulations violated the RFRA, which prohibited the federal government from taking any action that substantially burdened the exercise of religion unless it constituted the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. The Court rejected HHS's argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they organized their businesses as corporations. The Court concluded that the challenged HHS regulations substantially burdened the exercise of religion because compliance was contrary to the owners' religious objections to abortion and there was a heavy financial penalty for noncompliance. The Court ruled that the contraceptive mandate, as applied to closely held corporations, violates RFRA. Assuming that the regulations served a compelling government interest, the Court found that they were not the least restrictive means of serving that interest because there were other ways to ensure that every woman had cost-free access to certain contraceptives.

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