by Samuel A. Marcosson, Professor of Law, University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law
On November 6, the Supreme Court granted cert in seven cases (which it promptly consolidated for briefing and argument as Zubik v. Burwell) to resolve the issue it left open when it ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that private, for-profit companies are entitled to a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees. At issue is whether the accommodation the government provides to nonprofit employers satisfies the requirements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). If it doesn’t, employees of these nonprofits will, like their counterparts at Hobby Lobby, lose their contraceptive coverage. A decision exempting the nonprofits from the contraceptive mandate would make Zubik one of the landmarks of the Term, and a disaster in the Court’s religion jurisprudence.
Zubik tests the limits of the dangerous path the Court began to walk in Hobby Lobby. The majority opinion there departed from the Court’s long-standing approach in religious accommodation cases of carefully considering the impact of a proposed accommodation on third parties who would be burdened by it. In Hobby Lobby, of course, those third parties were the employees who lost coverage for contraceptive care that, under the ACA, is an essential element of comprehensive health insurance and which, for many, avoids enormous expense and “helps safeguard the health of women for whom pregnancy may be hazardous, even life threatening.” The Court gave almost no weight to the interests and needs of those employees who would be deprived of the essential coverage the ACA had mandated.
The Court faces an even starker choice in Zubik because the claim on the other side of the scale, the burden claimed by the employers to their religious exercise, is more attenuated than it was in Hobby Lobby. A nonprofit that objects to providing contraceptive coverage receives an accommodation simply by certifying to HHS that it has a religious objection. As Justice Alito admitted in Hobby Lobby, a nonprofit which files the certification is “effectively exempted . . . from the contraceptive mandate.” In other words, to be accommodated under the ACA regulations, all the objecting nonprofits must do is tell HHS exactly what they are telling the Supreme Court: that they have a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage.