U.S. Supreme Court Must Not Expand Citizens United’s Reach

January 31, 2014

The Brennan Center for Justice filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to deny a demand by the religious owners of two for-profit corporations to be exempted from certain legal duties under the Affordable Care Act.  The brief was filed in the consolidated cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.

The brief explains that for-profit business corporations, as legal abstractions, are incapable of exercising the intensely personal emotions associated with religious worship.  The right to the free exercise of religion instead belongs to human beings.  While the Court has recognized corporate constitutional rights in some contexts, it has not done so when the right in question is rooted in human dignity.  The Court’s expansion of corporate political speech in Citizens United provides no basis for recognizing religious rights in corporations, the brief argues.  The majority’s reasoning in that case focused squarely on the First Amendment interests not of corporations but of the public — the Court assumed that people would need information from corporations to participate effectively in our democracy.  Consequently, for-profit corporations with religious owners are not entitled to an exemption from the law’s requirements based upon the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

The brief also explains that the Court has historically only granted a religious exemption from statutory obligations when the exemption would not result in substantial third-party costs.  In this situation, however, because granting an exemption would result in great costs to the corporations’ competitors and employees, the Court should not grant an exemption.

Brennan Center legal experts are available to discuss the filing and the broader issues in the case.

To schedule an interview, please contact Naren Daniel (naren.daniel@nyu.edu, 646-292-8381).


Background

Under the Affordable Care Act and its related regulations, employers of 50 or more people are required to provide a minimum level of health insurance to their employees.  Among other requirements, the health plan must include coverage for FDA-approved contraceptive methods. 

Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. are two family-owned, for-profit corporations.  The corporations’ owners objected to the requirement that the corporations provide coverage for contraceptives on the grounds that doing so contradicts their religious beliefs.  As a result, the corporations and owners filed suits claiming that the requirement violates their religious freedoms under the First Amendment and are therefore unconstitutional, among other arguments.

The Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.  The Third Circuit ruled against Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., saying that the requirement complies both with the Constitution and the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court agreed to review both rulings and consolidated the two cases into a single action.