The Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, challenging the HHS Mandate. The cases, from the Third and Tenth Circuits, had opposite outcomes at the court of appeals level. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court were held on March 25, 2014.
Listen to audio from the Supreme Court argument (March 25, 2014) in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.
In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the Tenth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that:
- for-profit corporations are “persons” for purposes of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act;
- the corporations’ exercise of religion was substantially burdened by the multimillion dollar fines the government threatened to impose;
- the government's interests in public health and gender equality did not constitute compelling interests achieved by the least restrictive means, particularly in light of the numerous exemptions already given many other corporations; and, therefore,
- RFRA required an individualized exemption for the corporations.
The Third Circuit, in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, held that:
- a for-profit, secular corporation was not a person for purposes of RFRA;
- corporations could not engage in religious exercise under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA claim; and
- the corporations’ religious owners, a Mennonite family, were not protected by RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause because the Mandate only required their business to act, not them.
Prior to hearing Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, in Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court issued an injunction, on January 24, 2014, protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor from the Mandate until their case was heard by the Tenth Circuit. While the Court stressed that its decision was not a final one on the merits, it was welcome news for the nuns and other religious nonprofits. On New Year’s Eve, Justice Sotomayor had issued a temporary stay to prevent immediate enforcement of the Affordable Care Act contraceptive coverage mandate compromise against the Little Sisters of the Poor, at least until the government could file its response. For that act of mercy, Justice Sotomayor took some heat in the liberal media.