Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
573 U.S. ___ (2014)

Annotate this Case

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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Nos. 13–354 and 13–356

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SYLVIA BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTHAND HUMAN SERVICES, et al., PETITIONERS

13–354      v.

HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC., et al.

on writ of certiorari to the united states courtof appeals for the tenth circuit

and

CONESTOGA WOOD SPECIALTIES CORPORATIONet al., PETITIONERS

13–356      v.

SYLVIA BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTHAND HUMAN SERVICES, et al.

on writ of certiorari to the united states courtof appeals for the third circuit

[June 30, 2014]

     Justice Kennedy, concurring.

     It seems to me appropriate, in joining the Court’s opinion, to add these few remarks. At the outset it should be said that the Court’s opinion does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent. The Court and the dissent disagree on the proper interpretation of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), but do agree on the purpose of that statute. 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq. It is to ensure that interests in religious freedom are protected. Ante, at 5–6; post, at 8–9 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).

     In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief. See Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 303 (1940) . It means, too, the rightto express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious(or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community. But in a complex society and an era of pervasive governmental regulation, defining the proper realm for free exercise can be difficult. In these cases the plaintiffs deem it necessary to exercise their religious beliefs within the context of their own closely held, for-profit corporations. They claim protection under RFRA, the federal statute discussed with care and in detail in the Court’s opinion.

     As the Court notes, under our precedents, RFRA imposes a “ ‘stringent test.’ ” Ante, at 6 (quoting City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U. S. 507, 533 (1997) ). The Government must demonstrate that the application of a substantial burden to a person’s exercise of religion “(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).

     As to RFRA’s first requirement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) makes the case that the mandate serves the Government’s compelling interest in providing insurance coverage that is necessary to protect the health of female employees, coverage that is significantly more costly than for a male employee. Ante, at 39; see, e.g., Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, pp. 14–15. There are many medical conditions for which pregnancy is contraindicated. See, e.g., id., at 47. It is important to confirm that a premise of the Court’s opinion is its assumption that the HHS regulation here at issue furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of female employees. Ante, at 40.

     But the Government has not made the second showing required by RFRA, that the means it uses to regulate is the least restrictive way to further its interest. As the Court’s opinion explains, the record in these casesshows that there is an existing, recognized, workable, and already-implemented framework to provide coverage. That framework is one that HHS has itself devised, that the plaintiffs have not criticized with a specific objection that has been considered in detail by the courts in this litigation, and that is less restrictive than the means challenged by the plaintiffs in these cases. Ante, at 9–10, and n. 9, 43–44.

     The means the Government chose is the imposition of a direct mandate on the employers in these cases. Ante, at 8–9. But in other instances the Government has allowed the same contraception coverage in issue here to be provided to employees of nonprofit religious organizations, as an accommodation to the religious objections of those entities. See ante, at 9–10, and n. 9, 43–44. The accommodation works by requiring insurance companies to cover, without cost sharing, contraception coverage for female employees who wish it. That accommodation equally furthers the Government’s interest but does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. See ante, at 44.

     On this record and as explained by the Court, the Government has not met its burden of showing that it cannot accommodate the plaintiffs’ similar religious objections under this established framework. RFRA is inconsis-tent with the insistence of an agency such as HHS on distinguishing between different religious believers—bur-dening one while accommodating the other—when itmay treat both equally by offering both of them the same accommodation.

     The parties who were the plaintiffs in the District Courts argue that the Government could pay for the methods that are found objectionable. Brief for Respondents in No. 13–354, p. 58. In discussing this alternative, the Court does not address whether the proper response to a legitimate claim for freedom in the health care arena is for the Government to create an additional program. Ante, at 41–43. The Court properly does not resolve whether one freedom should be protected by creating incentives for additional government constraints. In these cases, it is the Court’s understanding that an accommodation may be made to the employers without imposition of a whole new program or burden on the Government. As the Court makes clear, this is not a case where it can be established that it is difficult to accommodate the government’s interest, and in fact the mechanism for doing so is already in place. Ante, at 43–44.

     “[T]he American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths.” Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 15). Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion. Yet neither may that same exercise unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here. RFRA requires the Government to use this less restrictive means. As the Court explains, this existing model, designed precisely for this problem, might well suffice to distinguish the instant cases from many others in which it is more difficult and expensive to accommodate a governmental program to countless religious claims based on an alleged statutory right of free exercise. Ante, at 45–46.

     For these reasons and others put forth by the Court, I join its opinion.

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