Religious employers in the United States are afforded the right to run their business in line with their beliefs. But for some Christian employers, that right was threatened during the tenure of former President Barack Obama.
Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, often called Obamacare, employers of over 50 people were required to offer a group health plan to their employees. The plan had to provide “minimum essential coverage,” which included “preventive care and screenings” for women.
In February 2012, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized rules that said preventive care includes employer funding for pills that facilitate abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from developing and ending an innocent human life.
As Christians, the Hahn family believes every life is sacred, so they are opposed to abortion. But the Hahns own a business called Conestoga Wood Specialties, and the HHS mandate forced them to pay for abortion-causing pills for their employees against their religious beliefs. ADF attorneys helped file a lawsuit on behalf of the company, and the case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Who are the Hahns, and what is Conestoga Wood Specialties?
Norman Hahn founded Conestoga Wood Specialties in 1964. What started as a small woodworking business in a Pennsylvania garage grew into a trusted manufacturer of cabinets, doors, and other wooden kitchen and bath components. The business employed about 950 people at the time of the Supreme Court hearing.
The Hahn family still owns Conestoga Wood Specialties. One of the Hahns’ sons now serves as president and CEO of the company.
As faithful Mennonites, the Hahns believe all life is sacred, and they operate their company in accordance with this belief. That’s why they knew they could not follow the HHS mandate to provide funding for abortion pills.
After President Barack Obama signed the ACA into law, Congress authorized HHS to determine what types of preventive care employers should be required to provide. An arm of HHS called the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) was given this task.
HRSA decided employers must provide coverage for “[a]ll Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling.”
Many of the FDA-approved drugs and contraception methods prevented an egg from ever being fertilized, but four of them may prevent an already fertilized egg from developing. The Hahns took issue specifically with those four methods because they view them as a form of abortion.
HRSA provided exemptions from the abortion-pill mandate for a variety of businesses. Any employer with fewer than 50 employees did not have to provide health insurance. HRSA exempted some religious entities like churches from the abortion pill mandate, as well as certain religious nonprofits that applied for exemptions. Since Conestoga Wood Specialties operates as a for-profit corporation, however, HRSA did not allow it to apply for a religious exemption.
If a non-exempt business failed to follow the ACA’s guidelines for its health-care plan, it would be forced to pay up to $100 per day for every employee affected. If the employer decided to stop providing any health care at all and any one of its employees qualified for an ACA subsidy, it would be forced to pay $2,000 a year for each full-time employee. The first penalty for failing to abide by the abortion pill mandate alone threatened to cost Conestoga Wood Specialties around $33 million per year.
With the help of Alliance Defending Freedom and allied attorney Randall Wenger of the Independence Law Center, Conestoga Wood Specialties filed a lawsuit against HHS in January 2013. It alleged the HHS abortion pill mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Passed by Congress in 1993, RFRA states that the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” even if a law generally applies to everyone. The only way the government can apply such a law is by proving that doing so will achieve a “compelling government interest” in the “least restrictive” way possible.
Around the same time as Conestoga Wood Specialties filed its lawsuit, Christian craft store Hobby Lobby also filed a lawsuit against HHS over the abortion pill mandate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled against Conestoga Wood Specialties.
While the 10th Circuit ruled that HHS had violated RFRA, the 3rd Circuit held corporations were not people, and it said RFRA only applies to people. Both decisions were appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on both cases at the same time.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the HHS abortion pill mandate violated RFRA as applied to family businesses like Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby. Closely held corporations, the Court said, should be treated as “people” under RFRA even if the corporation was designed to make a profit. Furthermore, the Court determined the HHS abortion pill mandate constituted an unnecessary burden on the business owners’ ability to exercise religion.
The Supreme Court ruling affirmed that Conestoga Wood Specialties, Hobby Lobby, and similar for-profit corporations are protected by RFRA. This means that closely held Christian companies do not have to cover abortion causing pills for their employees, and they are free to live according to their beliefs without being punished by the government.
- January 2013: With the help of ADF and allied attorneys, Conestoga Wood Specialties filed a lawsuit against HHS alleging its mandate that for-profit corporations provide abortion pills for their employees violated RFRA. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the request to halt enforcement of the mandate.
- July 2013: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The 3rd Circuit ruled the Hahn family was distinct from their corporation, and the mandate applied only to Conestoga Wood Specialties, not the Hahns personally. The court said a corporation was not a person, could not exercise religion, and therefore RFRA did not apply.
- September 2013: ADF and allied attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
- June 2014: The Supreme Court reversed the 3rd Circuit’s decision. The Court ruled that closely-held businesses could raise RFRA claims and that the HHS abortion pill mandate violated RFRA as applied to Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby. These businesses were now free to operate without being forced to provide abortion coverage in conflict with their religious beliefs.
The bottom line
Americans’ freedoms do not end when they choose to open a business. The government cannot force individuals or closely held corporations to violate their religious beliefs.