July 03, 2014
Area(s) of Interest: Licensing & Regulatory Issues
The United States Supreme Court ruled last week that a private company has the right to be exempted from federal law if complying with the law would violate the religious beliefs of the company's owners. In a 5 to 4 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. et al., the Court held that based on the religious objections of its owners, the contraception coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) violates the rights of for-profit corporations under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion.
The California Medical Association (CMA) joined other state medical associations and health care provider organizations to file an amicus brief in this case. CMA's amicus brief stressed the importance of widespread access to contraception as an essential component of health care for women of child-bearing age. It also pointed out that allowing a religious exemption to the ACA's mandated coverage requirements will have far-reaching consequences beyond contraception by improperly allowing employers' personal beliefs to play a role in the treatment options available to their employees. CMA strongly believes that health care decision should be made by patients in consultation with their health care providers to ensure that such decisions are made with the patient's health and well-being in mind. Patients who are covered by employer-based group health plans should have the full range of treatment options available in accordance to their needs.
The Court instead found that corporations were included within the definition of "persons" under the RFRA. Since the contraception coverage mandate would impose a financial penalty of as much as $475 million a year on Hobby Lobby for not complying with the law, the Court found that the mandate imposed a substantial burden on the corporation’s religious beliefs.
In a dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by dissenting Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan, argued that the majority’s decision opens the floodgates for corporations to "opt out of any law … they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs." The dissent stated that the contraception coverage requirement was vital to women’s health and reproductive freedom and pointed out that the exemption sought by Hobby Lobby overrides the interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents and denies access to contraceptive coverage to women who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.
The dissent also warned that the majority's decision opens the door for other commercial enterprises seeking exemptions from generally applicable laws on the basis of their religious beliefs and points to religiously grounded objections to racial integration, minimum wage, according women equal pay for substantially similar work, blood transfusions, antidepressants, medications derived from pigs, pills coated with gelatin and vaccinations.
Contact: CMA's legal information line, (800) 786-4262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.