June 30, 2014 – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in a 5-4 decision that two family-owned corporations cannot be forced under terms of the Affordable Care Act to pay for insurance coverage of contraceptives for employees. The requirement, the Court found, violates federal law protecting religious freedom. The two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, challenged the requirement on the grounds that certain contraceptives violate their religious principles against abortion. Aaron Bruhl, Associate Professor of Law and George Butler Research Professor at the University of Houston Law Center, teaches courses on the federal court system and closely monitors Supreme Court decisions. He answered a few questions about today’s ruling:
Q.) Does the ruling apply specifically to the two companies or can others claim similar exemptions on religious grounds?
The ruling applies to other similar companies as well, namely companies controlled by a small group of people who have sincere religious objections to the contraception mandate. This case did not directly involve publicly traded corporations, which describes most of the nation’s largest employers. It seems unlikely that large publicly traded companies like Microsoft or Exxon, which are owned by countless individual shareholders, could claim to possess religious beliefs that would qualify them for an exemption.
Q.) Does this ruling open the door to challenges of other laws on the grounds that they violate personal principles?
Potentially, but it is hard to know yet. This is a country with people of many different faiths who believe many different things about how to conduct their lives. Plenty of laws could potentially interfere with those beliefs. The dissent in this case was very concerned about the potential for exemptions to proliferate. The majority attempted to limit this case to the particular circumstances at issue; for example, it expressly stated that the ruling would not allow an employer to claim, on religious grounds, that it could hire and fire employees according to their race. But this case will likely encourage future litigation in which businesses seek exemptions from various types of laws on religious grounds. For example, some business owners may claim that they should not be required to provide services that support same-sex marriages, even if generally applicable laws would otherwise prohibit such discrimination.
Q.) Does this ruling, and last week’s decision on abortion clinic “buffer zones,” portend a pro-life challenge of Roe v. Wade in the near future?
Several cases about abortion have been making their way through the judicial system, including a case about new restrictions on clinics in Texas. There is a good chance that the Supreme Court could rule on abortion again soon. A majority of the Court’s members have serious qualms about Roe v. Wade, though we already knew that before these very recent reminders. One can never know for sure, but it seems to me we are more likely to see the Court allow further piecemeal restrictions on abortion rather than see the Court overrule Roe v. Wade and wholly eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion.