by Deborah A. Roy, Trial Attorney, Antitrust Division, United States Department of Justice and author of "Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., James Wilson, and the Pursuit of Equality and Liberty,"61 Clev. St. L. Rev. 665 (2013)
* The views expressed are not purported to reflect those of the United States Department of Justice.
Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who served on the United States Supreme Court for 34 years from 1956 to 1990, was one of the most influential justices during his term on the Court. Today, however, it is unlikely that a president would announce his intent to appoint a justice in the mold of Brennan or that a nominee to the Court would invoke Brennan’s jurisprudence. Justice Brennan has been criticized for legislating from the bench and enacting his own liberal social views, rather than strictly interpreting the United States Constitution. To the contrary, however, Justice Brennan’s opinions were often directly opposed to his personal beliefs. For example, Justice Brennan acknowledged that, as a lifelong Roman Catholic, the rulings outlawing prayer in schools were difficult for him. And while he upheld the right of a demonstrator to burn the United States flag, it is unlikely that Brennan, a World War II veteran who cherished the country established by the Constitution, would himself burn its flag.
In fact, Justice Brennan interpreted the Constitution taking into account his understanding of the document’s founding principles. And his constitutional vision is consistent with that of James Wilson, a Framer from Pennsylvania, who is one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Wilson is considered by many scholars to be second only to James Madison in his influence on the drafting of the Constitution. Justice Brennan and James Wilson shared a constitutional vision based on respect for the individual. Brennan frequently referenced human dignity as the foundational principle of his jurisprudence, while Wilson emphasized that the fundamental unit of democratic government is the individual person. From the principle of individual dignity, both men derived rights to equality and liberty. In a speech urging Pennsylvania to ratify the Constitution, Wilson stated that among the advantages of a constitutional democracy are the rights to liberty and equal laws for its citizens. Two centuries later, Brennan’s opinions furthered the realization of racial and gender equality, and upheld the liberty of individuals to make personal decisions without interference from the State.
All in all, 46 recommendations were offered, among them the private, non-governmental retention of all personal communications data, accessible only through individualized court orders approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC); the first-ever appointment of a “public interest advocate” to argue on behalf of civil liberties and privacy concerns before the FISC, which currently has no adversarial process; the ceasing of “back door” access points in hardware or software; and the incorporation of privacy protections for non-U.S. citizens.
Also of note was the enumeration of guiding principles. For example, the panel endorsed a dual understanding of “security” – national security, on the one hand, and Fourth Amendment personal security on the other. The report also said the idea of “balancing” these two interests has “an important element of truth” but is “inadequate and misleading”:
[S]ome safeguards are not subject to balancing at all. In a free society, public officials should never engage in surveillance in order to punish their political enemies; to restrict freedom of speech or religion; to suppress legitimate criticism and dissent; to help their preferred companies or industries; to provide domestic companies with an unfair competitive advantage; or to benefit or burden members of groups defined in terms of religion, ethnicity, race, and gender.
The panel also endorsed a “broad principle for the future: as a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.”
Most discussions of whether Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as corporations have focused on their for-profit character. This is something of a red herring; for-profit character matters, but not in the way most people think. As law professors Micah Schwartzman, Richard Schragger and Nelson Tebbe have pointed out (see here and here), what disqualifies a corporation from RFRA protection is as much its size as its for-profit character.
The corporate plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby, for example, insist that they “believe” and “practice” the religion of their owners because they are “family businesses” and “closely held” corporations that have very few shareholders. This self-description evokes the stereotypical image of the small-town “mom-and-pop” grocery store, staffed mostly by an extended family whose members greet everyone by name and whose customers, suppliers and other employees uniformly identify as the “real” owners irrespective of legal formalities.
Federal laws are frequently sensitive to the needs of such genuinely small businesses. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act exempts businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and the Fair Housing Act similarly does not apply to small apartment complexes where the owner resides on the premises. The ACA itself exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employees from the employer mandate to provide employee healthcare insurance.
The corporations here are light years away from the “mom-and-pop” stereotype. Hobby Lobby and its affiliates employ 13,400 people in 600 locations scattered through 39 states (including a 3.4 million square foot headquarters complex). Forbesestimates its annual revenue at substantially more than $2 billion.
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review two lower court decisions involving for-profit businesses seeking religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “contraception mandate.” The mandate requires that employer healthcare plans cover all FDA-approved contraception without “cost-sharing”—that is, without a copayment or other out-of-pocket patient expense beyond the monthly plan premium. Churches and other “houses of worship” are fully exempt from the mandate, and there is a regulatory accommodation for religious nonprofits like religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals, which excuses them from complying with the mandate so long as they certify that compliance violates the tenets of their affiliated religion.
For-profit employers whose religious beliefs condemn the use of some or all of the mandated contraceptives have challenged the mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from imposing a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious practices unless it is pursuing an exceptionally important goal that it cannot accomplish in another way. These employers are claiming that RFRA grants them the same kind of exemption as has been granted to churches, synagogues, and other religious congregations, even though they are unambiguously secular enterprises like craft stores, auto parts manufacturers, construction companies, and medical supply businesses. (I examined the weaknesses in these cases in an ACS Issue Brief last fall).
One of the mandate decisions the Court will review, Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius(10th Cir. June 27, 2013), decided that a for-profit corporation that operates a nation-wide chain of craft stores is a “person” who “exercises religion” under RFRA and thus is entitled to its protections. The other decision, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. Sebelius(3rd Cir. July 26, 2013) went the other way, finding that a for-profit corporation that operates a cabinet-making business is not protected by RFRA, and additionally holding that the mandate does not violate free exercise rights protected by the First Amendment.
The D.C. Circuit’s recent decision addressing the contraception mandate – Gilardi v. United States Department of Health and Human Services – got some things right but many more things wrong. The contraception mandate is the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health care plans, now mandatory for large employers, include all FDA-approved contraception without any cost sharing by employees.
Francis and Philip Gilardi own and manage Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, fresh food processing and delivery companies. The brothers are religiously opposed to contraception and argued that the mandate violates their corporations’ and their own religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under RFRA, “persons” are entitled to exemptions from federal laws that impose a substantial burden on their religious conscience unless the challenged law passes strict scrutiny. A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit held that the brothers were entitled to an exemption from the mandate under RFRA.
What the Gilardi Court got right. The Gilardi Court held that secular corporations are not “persons” capable of religious exercise and therefore cannot bring a RFRA claim. Because RFRA draws from Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence, the D.C. Circuit took the occasion to examine whether corporations had free exercise rights. It rejected such a notion, observing that the Supreme Court has never extended free exercise protection to secular corporations and “has expressed strong doubts about the proposition.” “When it comes to the free exercise of religion . . . the [Supreme] Court has only indicated that people and churches worship.”