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A Guide to the Supreme Court's Review of the Contraceptive Coverage Requirement

Shortly after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the new federal rule that required all new private plans to cover prescribed FDA approved contraceptive methods without cost-sharing, a number of corporations sued claiming that this new requirement violates their religious rights. These lawsuits have worked their way through the Federal Courts and, on November 26, 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases that involve for-profit corporations. The Court agreed to hear a case from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores owned by a Christian family who claim that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates their company’s religious freedom. The Court also agreed to hear a case from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against the corporation and its owners, finding that Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet manufacturer, does not have religious rights. The Supreme Court decided to take these cases to resolve the conflict between these two decisions and other U.S. Courts of Appeals’ rulings.

Over forty other lawsuits have been filed by for-profit secular corporations challenging the contraceptive coverage requirement. In addition, over forty religiously affiliated nonprofit corporations are also challenging the contraceptive coverage requirement claiming that the accommodation for religiously affiliated nonprofits is insufficient and still burdens their religious rights. It is likely that some of these nonprofit cases will request the Supreme Court to review these cases in future sessions. The oral argument for the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties cases is scheduled to be heard in Spring 2014 and the decision will likely be announced in June 2014.

At the crux of these cases is a question that the Supreme Court has not previously addressed: Do for-profit corporations have protections under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act1 (RFRA)? If the Court finds that for-profit corporations have protections under the RFRA, then the Court will need to determine if it is a violation of the RFRA to require a business to provide insurance that includes coverage for contraceptives when that coverage violates the owners’ personal religious beliefs. The Court will also consider whether the contraceptive coverage requirement violates the First Amendment’s protection for free exercise of religion.2 The corporations’ owners have also asserted rights under the RFRA and the First Amendment. The Court will need to determine if the owners’ rights are violated by a regulation imposed on the corporation.

While the Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods Specialties will have a direct effect on women’s access to contraceptive coverage, it may also have broader ramifications for civil rights protections in the workplace. This policy brief explains the issues raised by the cases pending, answers some key questions about the parties’ legal arguments and considers possible effects of the potential decisions.

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