Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Decision Date30 June 2014
Docket NumberNos. 13–354,13–356.,s. 13–354
Citation134 S.Ct. 2751,189 L.Ed.2d 675,573 U.S. 682
Parties Sylvia BURWELL, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., Petitioners v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC., et al. Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation et al., Petitioners v. Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Paul D. Clement, Washington, DC, for the private parties.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, for the federal government.

Paul D. Clement, Michael H. McGinley, Bancroft PLLC, Washington, DC, Peter M. Dobelbower, General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer, Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Oklahoma City, OK, S. Kyle Duncan, Counsel of Record, Eric C. Rassbach, Luke W. Goodrich, Hannah C. Smith, Mark L. Rienzi, Lori H. Windham, Adèle Auxier Keim, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Washington, DC, Joshua D. Hawley, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, counsel for Respondents.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General, Ian Heath Gershengorn, Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitors General, Joseph R. Palmore, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Mark B. Stern, Alisa B. Klein, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Jordan W. Lorence, Steven H. Aden, Gregory S. Baylor, Matthew S. Bowman, Alliance Defending Freedom, Washington, DC, David A. Cortman, Counsel of Record, Kevin H. Theriot, Rory T. Gray, Alliance Defending Freedom, Lawrenceville, GA, Charles W. Proctor, III, Law Offices of Proctor, Lindsay & Dixon, Chadds Ford, PA, Randall L. Wenger, Independence Law Center, Harrisburg, PA, for Petitioners Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation et al.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must decide in these cases whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq ., permits the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to demand that three closely held corporations provide health-insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies' owners. We hold that the regulations that impose this obligation violate RFRA, which prohibits the Federal Government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

In holding that the HHS mandate is unlawful, we reject HHS's argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.

Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price—as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.

Under RFRA, a Government action that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest, and we assume that the HHS regulations satisfy this requirement. But in order for the HHS mandate to be sustained, it must also constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest, and the mandate plainly fails that test. There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives.

In fact, HHS has already devised and implemented a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious nonprofit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections to providing such coverage. The employees of these religious nonprofit corporations still have access to insurance coverage without cost sharing for all FDA-approved contraceptives; and according to HHS, this system imposes no net economic burden on the insurance companies that are required to provide or secure the coverage.

Although HHS has made this system available to religious nonprofits that have religious objections to the contraceptive mandate, HHS has provided no reason why the same system cannot be made available when the owners of for-profit corporations have similar religious objections. We therefore conclude that this system constitutes an alternative that achieves all of the Government's aims while providing greater respect for religious liberty. And under RFRA, that conclusion means that enforcement of the HHS contraceptive mandate against the objecting parties in these cases is unlawful.

As this description of our reasoning shows, our holding is very specific. We do not hold, as the principal dissent alleges, that for-profit corporations and other commercial enterprises can "opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs."

Post, at 2787 (opinion of GINSBURG, J.). Nor do we hold, as the dissent implies, that such corporations have free rein to take steps that impose " disadvantages ... on others" or that require "the general public [to] pick up the tab." Post, at 2787. And we certainly do not hold or suggest that " RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation's religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on ... thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby." Post, at 2787.1 The effect of the HHS-created accommodation on the women employed by Hobby Lobby and the other companies involved in these cases would be precisely zero. Under that accommodation, these women would still be entitled to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing.


Congress enacted RFRA in 1993 in order to provide very broad protection for religious liberty. RFRA's enactment came three years after this Court's decision in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990), which largely repudiated the method of analyzing free-exercise claims that had been used in cases like Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972). In determining whether challenged government actions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, those decisions used a balancing test that took into account whether the challenged action imposed a substantial burden on the practice of religion, and if it did, whether it was needed to serve a compelling government interest. Applying this test, the Court held in Sherbert that an employee who was fired for refusing to work on her Sabbath could not be denied unemployment benefits.

374 U.S., at 408–409, 83 S.Ct. 1790. And in Yoder , the Court held that Amish children could not be required to comply with a state law demanding that they remain in school until the age of 16 even though their religion required them to focus on uniquely Amish values and beliefs during their formative adolescent years. 406 U.S., at 210–211, 234–236, 92 S.Ct. 1526.

In Smith, however, the Court rejected "the balancing test set forth in Sherbert ." 494 U.S., at 883, 110 S.Ct. 1595. Smith concerned two members of the Native American Church who were fired for ingesting peyote for sacramental purposes. When they sought unemployment benefits, the State of Oregon rejected their claims on the ground that consumption of peyote was a crime, but the Oregon Supreme Court, applying the Sherbert test, held that the denial of benefits violated the Free Exercise Clause. 494 U.S., at 875, 110 S.Ct. 1595.

This Court then reversed, observing that use of the Sherbert test whenever a person objected on religious grounds to the enforcement of a generally applicable law "would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind." 494 U.S., at 888, 110 S.Ct. 1595. The Court therefore held that, under the First Amendment, "neutral, generally applicable laws may be applied to religious practices even when not supported by a compelling governmental interest." City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 514, 117 S.Ct. 2157, 138 L.Ed.2d 624 (1997).

Congress responded to Smith by enacting RFRA. "[L]aws [that are] ‘neutral’ toward religion," Congress found, "may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise." 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb(a)(2) ; see also § 2000bb(a)(4). In order to ensure broad protection for religious liberty, RFRA provides that "Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability." § 2000bb–1(a).2 If the Government substantially burdens a person's exercise of religion, under the Act that person is entitled to an exemption from the rule unless the Government "demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." § 2000bb–1(b).3

As enacted in 1993, RFRA applied to both the Federal Government and the States, but the constitutional authority invoked for...

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