by Frederick Gedicks, Guy Anderson Chair and Professor of Law, Brigham Young University Law School
In the wake of last week’s oral argument of the contraception mandate cases, numerous reporters and bloggers have suggested that the government’s defense of the mandate went badly because (roughly), “Justice Kennedy thinks Hobby Lobby is an abortion case.” The basis for this take is that Justice Kennedy’s questions linked the mandate with abortion rights, to which he has only a limited commitment: Justice Kennedy joined the joint opinion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) which upheld the “core” of Roe v. Wade (1973), but he subsequently authored the majority opinion in Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007), which upheld a federal statutory ban on late-term abortions despite the absence of health exception. (See also Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), with Kennedy dissenting to the Court’s striking down of a state ban.)
But there’s another way of seeing Hobby Lobby. Justice Kennedy also asked questions that linked Hobby Lobby’s opposition to the mandate to the burdens a religious exemption from the mandate would impose on its employees, and he has expressed concern in past decisions about religious exemptions that shift the cost of accommodation from those who practice the accommodated religion to those who don’t. For example, Kennedy wrote in the Kiryas Joel that “a religious accommodation demands careful scrutiny to ensure that it does not so burden nonadherents or so discriminate against other religions as to become an establishment” (concurring in the judgment).
This concern about cost-shifting religious accommodations would presumably be front and center in any case involving religious exemptions that would burden gays and lesbians. Whatever he thinks about abortion rights, there can be no question that Justice Kennedy has long been unequivocally opposed to discrimination against gays and lesbians. See United States v. Windsor (2013); Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013); Lawrence v. Texas (2003); Romer v. Evans (1996). Indeed, it would appear from Windsor that Justice Kennedy is prepared to hold that state prohibitions and restrictions on same-sex marriage violate the both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exemptions for Hobby Lobby would open the door to state religious exemptions excusing for-profit businesses from serving same-sex couples or providing certain benefits to gay and lesbian employees. A religious exemption from the contraception mandate for Hobby Lobby would establish a more general principle that for-profit businesses and their owners are entitled to statutory accommodation of their religious beliefs, even when such accommodations impose significant costs on others who do not share those beliefs. Under this principle, not only could an employer claim the right not to provide services for a same-sex wedding on religious grounds, it could also claim the right not to provide mandated employee benefits like health insurance coverage for same-sex spouses, or leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act for gay employees who adopt a child.
This was the lesson of the proposed amendment to Arizona’s religious accommodation statute, SB 1062, which would have written provisions into state law that are strikingly similar to arguments being made by Hobby Lobby in the contraception mandate cases – for example, that for-profit businesses exercise religion (regardless of whether they take the corporate form), and that these businesses and their owners are presumptively entitled to exemption from state laws or private demands that burden their religious beliefs and practices, unless these are the least restrictive means of implementing a compelling government interest. As we know, the resulting public outcry -- which included prominent political conservatives -- resulted in a veto of the amendments.
It may be that “Justice Kennedy thinks Hobby Lobby is an abortion case.” But it seems just as likely that he will see it as a gay -rights case – and that would be good news for the contraception mandate.