Supreme Court of the United States Recognizes Business Owners Have Religious Rights Too

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The final Supreme Court opinion of the term held that forcing closely held, for-profit corporations to pay for contraception is a violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs and is illegal under federal law under Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius. The Court did not decide whether this violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Although the decisions and accompanying vociferous dissents are 95 pages long, the basic holdings that impact our clients can be broken down as follows:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless that burden:

  • Furthers a compelling governmental interest
  • Is the least restrictive means to further that interest

The Court held that corporations are “persons” under RFRA and that they can exercise religion.

Guaranteeing free contraceptives may be a compelling government interest, but forcing employers to pay for them is not the least restrictive means to achieve this- the government can pay for the contraceptives.

The Court was careful and explicit to restrict its actual decision to this specific question (ie this is not a basis for corporations to begin discriminating against protected groups). However, the recognition of employing businesses as persons who can exercise religion and vindicate religious rights in the civil court system will have long term impacts as this permits bringing more such questions before the courts.

About the Authors

Karen Kalzer

Ms. Kalzer practices employment and education law with an emphasis on defending complex litigation for communities of faith, non-profits, schools and private employers.

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