Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
Annotate this Case
573 US ___ (2014)
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Nos. 13–354 and 13–356
SYLVIA BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTHAND HUMAN SERVICES, et al., PETITIONERS
HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC., et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states courtof appeals for the tenth circuit
CONESTOGA WOOD SPECIALTIES CORPORATIONet al., PETITIONERS
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 Alito delivered the opinion of the Court.
We must decide in these cases whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107Stat. 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 for-feited 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 contracep-tives; 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 1 (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 1–2. 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 2. 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 (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 (1963), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205 (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. 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.
In Smith, however, the Court rejected “the balancing test set forth in Sherbert.” 494 U. S., at 883. 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.
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. 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 (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). 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).
As enacted in 1993, RFRA applied to both the Federal Government and the States, but the constitutional authority invoked for regulating federal and state agencies differed. As applied to a federal agency, RFRA is based on the enumerated power that supports the particular agency’s work, but in attempting to regulate the States and their subdivisions, Congress relied on its power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the First Amendment. 521 U. S., at 516–517. In City of Boerne, however, we held that Congress had overstepped its Section 5 authority because “[t]he stringent test RFRA demands” “far exceed[ed] any pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct under the Free Exercise Clause as interpreted in Smith.” Id., at 533–534. See also id., at 532.
Following our decision in City of Boerne, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114Stat. 803, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq. That statute, enacted under Congress’s Commerce and Spending Clause powers, imposes the same general test as RFRA but on a more limited category of governmental actions. See Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U. S. 709 –716 (2005). And, what is most relevant for present purposes, RLUIPA amended RFRA’s definition of the “exercise of religion.” See §2000bb–2(4) (importing RLUIPA definition). Before RLUIPA, RFRA’s definition made reference to the First Amendment. See §2000bb–2(4) (1994 ed.) (defining “exercise of religion” as “the exercise of religion under the First Amendment”). In RLUIPA, in an obvious effort to effect a complete separation from First Amendment case law, Congress deleted the reference to the First Amendment and defined the “exercise of religion” to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” §2000cc–5(7)(A). And Congress mandated that this concept “be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.” §2000cc–3(g).
At issue in these cases are HHS regulations promul-gated under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), 124Stat. 119. ACA generally requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer“a group health plan or group health insurance coverage” that provides “minimum essential coverage.” 26 U. S. C. §5000A(f)(2); §§4980H(a), (c)(2). Any covered employer that does not provide such coverage must pay a substantial price. Specifically, if a covered employer provides group health insurance but its plan fails to comply with ACA’s group-health-plan requirements, the employer may be required to pay $100 per day for each affected “individual.” §§4980D(a)–(b). And if the employer decides to stop providing health insurance altogether and at least one full-time employee enrolls in a health plan and qualifies for a subsidy on one of the government-run ACA exchanges, the employer must pay $2,000 per year for each of its full-time employees. §§4980H(a), (c)(1).
Unless an exception applies, ACA requires an employer’s group health plan or group-health-insurance coverage to furnish “preventive care and screenings” for women without “any cost sharing requirements.” 42 U. S. C. §300gg–13(a)(4). Congress itself, however, did not specify what types of preventive care must be covered. Instead, Congress authorized the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), a component of HHS, to make that important and sensitive decision. Ibid. The HRSA in turn consulted the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit group of volunteer advisers, in determining which preventive services to require. See 77 Fed. Reg. 8725–8726 (2012).
In August 2011, based on the Institute’s recommendations, the HRSA promulgated the Women’s Preventive Services Guidelines. See id., at 8725–8726, and n. 1; online at http://hrsa.gov/womensguidelines (all Internet materials as visited June 26, 2014, and available in Clerk of Court’s case file). The Guidelines provide that nonexempt employers are generally required to provide “coverage, without cost sharing” for “[a]ll Food and Drug Ad-ministration [(FDA)] approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling.” 77 Fed. Reg. 8725 (internal quotation marks omitted). Although many of the required, FDA-approved methods of contraception work by preventing the fertilization of an egg, four of those methods (those specifically at issue in these cases) may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. See Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, pp. 9–10, n. 4; FDA, Birth Control: Medicines to Help You.
HHS also authorized the HRSA to establish exemptions from the contraceptive mandate for “religious employers.” 45 CFR §147.131(a). That category encompasses “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associ-ations of churches,” as well as “the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.” See ibid (citing 26 U. S. C. §§6033(a)(3)(A)(i), (iii)). In its Guidelines,HRSA exempted these organizations from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. See http://hrsa.gov/womensguidelines.
In addition, HHS has effectively exempted certain religious nonprofit organizations, described under HHS regulations as “eligible organizations,” from the contraceptive mandate. See 45 CFR §147.131(b); 78 Fed. Reg. 39874 (2013). An “eligible organization” means a nonprofit organization that “holds itself out as a religious organi-zation” and “opposes providing coverage for some or all of any contraceptive services required to be covered . . . on account of religious objections.” 45 CFR §147.131(b). To qualify for this accommodation, an employer must certify that it is such an organization. §147.131(b)(4). When a group-health-insurance issuer receives notice that one of its clients has invoked this provision, the issuer must then exclude contraceptive coverage from the employer’s plan and provide separate payments for contraceptive services for plan participants without imposing any cost-sharing requirements on the eligible organization, its insurance plan, or its employee beneficiaries. §147.131(c). Al-though this procedure requires the issuer to bear the cost of these services, HHS has determined that this obligation will not impose any net expense on issuers because its cost will be less than or equal to the cost savings resulting from the services. 78 Fed. Reg. 39877.
In addition to these exemptions for religious organizations, ACA exempts a great many employers from most of its coverage requirements. Employers providing “grandfathered health plans”—those that existed prior to March 23, 2010, and that have not made specified changes after that date—need not comply with many of the Act’s requirements, including the contraceptive mandate. 42 U. S. C. §§18011(a), (e). And employers with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide health insurance at all. 26 U. S. C. §4980H(c)(2).
All told, the contraceptive mandate “presently does not apply to tens of millions of people.” 723 F. 3d 1114, 1143 (CA10 2013). This is attributable, in large part, to grandfathered health plans: Over one-third of the 149 million nonelderly people in America with employer-sponsored health plans were enrolled in grandfathered plans in 2013. Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 53; Kaiser Family Foundation & Health Research & Educational Trust, Employer Health Benefits, 2013 Annual Survey 43, 221. The count for employees working for firms that do not have to provide insurance at all because they employ fewer than 50 employees is 34 million workers. See The Whitehouse, Health Reform for Small Businesses: The Affordable Care Act Increases Choice and Saving Money for Small Businesses 1.
Norman and Elizabeth Hahn and their three sons are devout members of the Mennonite Church, a Christian denomination. The Mennonite Church opposes abortion and believes that “[t]he fetus in its earliest stages . . . shares humanity with those who conceived it.”
Fifty years ago, Norman Hahn started a wood-working business in his garage, and since then, this company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, has grown and now has 950 employees. Conestoga is organized under Pennsylvania law as a for-profit corporation. The Hahns exercise sole ownership of the closely held business; they control its board of directors and hold all of its voting shares. One of the Hahn sons serves as the president and CEO.
The Hahns believe that they are required to run their business “in accordance with their religious beliefs and moral principles.” 917 F. Supp. 2d 394, 402 (ED Pa. 2013). To that end, the company’s mission, as they see it, is to “operate in a professional environment founded upon the highest ethical, moral, and Christian principles.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). The company’s “Vision and Values Statements” affirms that Conestoga endeavors to “ensur[e] a reasonable profit in [a] manner that reflects [the Hahns’] Christian heritage.” App. in No. 13–356, p. 94 (complaint).
As explained in Conestoga’s board-adopted “Statement on the Sanctity of Human Life,” the Hahns believe that “human life begins at conception.” 724 F. 3d 377, 382, and n. 5 (CA3 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). It is therefore “against [their] moral conviction to be involved in the termination of human life” after conception, which they believe is a “sin against God to which they are held accountable.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). The Hahns have accordingly excluded from the group-health-insurance plan they offer to their employees certain contraceptive methods that they consider to be abortifacients. Id., at 382.
The Hahns and Conestoga sued HHS and other federal officials and agencies under RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, seeking to enjoin application of ACA’s contraceptive mandate insofar as it requires them to provide health-insurance coverage for four FDA-approved contraceptives that may operate after the fertilization of an egg. These include two forms of emergency contraception commonly called “morning after” pills and two types of intrauterine devices.
In opposing the requirement to provide coverage for the contraceptives to which they object, the Hahns argued that “it is immoral and sinful for [them] to intentionally participate in, pay for, facilitate, or otherwise support these drugs.” Ibid. The District Court denied a preliminary injunction, see 917 F. Supp. 2d, at 419, and the Third Circuit affirmed in a divided opinion, holding that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” within the meaning of RFRA or the First Amendment. 724 F. 3d, at 381. The Third Circuit also rejected the claims brought by the Hahns themselves because it concluded that the HHS “[m]andate does not impose any requirements on the Hahns” in their personal capacity. Id., at 389.
David and Barbara Green and their three children are Christians who own and operate two family businesses. Forty-five years ago, David Green started an arts-and-crafts store that has grown into a nationwide chain called Hobby Lobby. There are now 500 Hobby Lobby stores, and the company has more than 13,000 employees. 723 F. 3d, at 1122. Hobby Lobby is organized as a for-profit corporation under Oklahoma law.
One of David’s sons started an affiliated business, Mardel, which operates 35 Christian bookstores and employs close to 400 people. Ibid. Mardel is also organized as a for-profit corporation under Oklahoma law.
Though these two businesses have expanded over the years, they remain closely held, and David, Barbara, and their children retain exclusive control of both companies. Ibid. David serves as the CEO of Hobby Lobby, and his three children serve as the president, vice president, and vice CEO. See Brief for Respondents in No. 13–354, p. 8.
Hobby Lobby’s statement of purpose commits the Greens to “[h]onoring the Lord in all [they] do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” App. in No. 13–354, pp. 134–135 (complaint). Each family member has signed a pledge to run the businesses in accordance with the family’s religious beliefs and to use the family assets to support Christian ministries. 723 F. 3d, at 1122. In accordance with those commitments, Hobby Lobby and Mardel stores close on Sundays, even though the Greens calculate that they lose millions in sales annually by doing so. Id., at 1122; App. in No. 13–354, at 136–137. The businesses refuse to engage in profitable transactions that facilitate or promote alcohol use; they contribute profits to Christian missionaries and ministries; and they buy hundreds of full-page newspaper ads inviting people to “know Jesus as Lord and Savior.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted).
Like the Hahns, the Greens believe that life begins at conception and that it would violate their religion to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after that point. 723 F. 3d, at 1122. They specifically object to the same four contraceptive methods as the Hahns and, like the Hahns, they have no objection to the other 16 FDA-approved methods of birth control. Id., at 1125. Although their group-health-insurance plan predates the enactment of ACA, it is not a grandfathered plan because Hobby Lobby elected not to retain grandfathered status before the contraceptive mandate was proposed. Id., at 1124.
The Greens, Hobby Lobby, and Mardel sued HHS and other federal agencies and officials to challenge the contraceptive mandate under RFRA and the Free Exercise Clause. The District Court denied a preliminary injunction, see 870 F. Supp. 2d 1278 (WD Okla. 2012), and the plaintiffs appealed, moving for initial en banc consideration. The Tenth Circuit granted that motion and reversed in a divided opinion. Contrary to the conclusion of the Third Circuit, the Tenth Circuit held that the Greens’ two for-profit businesses are “persons” within the meaning of RFRA and therefore may bring suit under that law.
The court then held that the corporations had established a likelihood of success on their RFRA claim. 723 F. 3d, at 1140–1147. The court concluded that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened the exercise of religion by requiring the companies to choose between “compromis[ing] their religious beliefs” and paying a heavy fee—either “close to $475 million more in taxes every year” if they simply refused to provide coverage for the contraceptives at issue, or “roughly $26 million” annually if they “drop[ped] health-insurance benefits for all employees.” Id., at 1141.
The court next held that HHS had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in enforcing the mandate against the Greens’ businesses and, in the alternative, that HHS had failed to prove that enforcement of the mandate was the “least restrictive means” of furthering the Government’s asserted interests. Id., at 1143–1144 (emphasis deleted; internal quotation marks omitted). After concluding that the companies had “demonstrated irreparable harm,” the court reversed and remanded for the District Court to consider the remaining factors of the preliminary-injunction test. Id., at 1147.
We granted certiorari. 571 U. S. ___ (2013).
RFRA prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” 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.” 42 U. S. C. §§2000bb–1(a), (b) (emphasis added). The first question that we must address is whether this provision applies to regulations that govern the activities of for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel.
HHS contends that neither these companies nor their owners can even be heard under RFRA. According to HHS, the companies cannot sue because they seek to make a profit for their owners, and the owners cannotbe heard because the regulations, at least as a formal mat-ter, apply only to the companies and not to the ownersas individuals. HHS’s argument would have dramatic consequences.
Consider this Court’s decision in Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U. S. 599 (1961) (plurality opinion). In that case, five Orthodox Jewish merchants who ran small retail businesses in Philadelphia challenged a Pennsylvania Sunday closing law as a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. Because of their faith, these merchants closed their shops on Saturday, and they argued that requiring them to remain shut on Sunday threatened them with financial ruin. The Court entertained their claim (although it ruled against them on the merits), and if a similar claim were raised today under RFRA against a jurisdiction still subject to the Act (for example, the District of Columbia, see 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–2(2)), the merchants would be entitled to be heard. According to HHS, however, if these merchants chose to incorporate their businesses—with-out in any way changing the size or nature of their businesses—they would forfeit all RFRA (and free-exercise) rights. HHS would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations.
As we have seen, RFRA was designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty. By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required. Is there any reason to think that the Congress that enacted such sweeping protection put small-business owners to the choice that HHS suggests? An examination of RFRA’s text, to which we turn in the next part of this opinion, reveals that Congress did no such thing.
As we will show, Congress provided protection for people like the Hahns and Greens by employing a familiar legal fiction: It included corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons.” But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statu-tory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people. For example, extending Fourth Amendment protection to corporations protects the privacy interests of employees and others associated with the company. Protecting corporations from government seizure of their property without just compensation protects all those who have a stake in the corporations’ financial well-being. And protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.
In holding that Conestoga, as a “secular, for-profit corporation,” lacks RFRA protection, the Third Circuit wrote as follows:
“General business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion. They do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously-motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors.” 724 F. 3d, at 385 (emphasis added).
All of this is true—but quite beside the point. Corporations, “separate and apart from” the human beings who own, run, and are employed by them, cannot do anything at all.
As we noted above, RFRA applies to “a person’s” exercise of religion, 42 U. S. C. §§2000bb–1(a), (b), and RFRA itself does not define the term “person.” We therefore look to the Dictionary Act, which we must consult “[i]n determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise.” 1 U. S. C. §1.
Under the Dictionary Act, “the wor[d] ‘person’ . . . include[s] corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” Ibid.; see FCC v. AT&T Inc., 562 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 6) (“We have no doubt that ‘person,’ in a legal setting, often refers to artificial entities. The Dictionary Act makes that clear”). Thus, unless there is something about the RFRA context that “indicates otherwise,” the Dictionary Act provides a quick, clear, and affirmative answer to the question whether the companies involved in these cases may be heard.
We see nothing in RFRA that suggests a congressional intent to depart from the Dictionary Act definition, and HHS makes little effort to argue otherwise. We have entertained RFRA and free-exercise claims brought by nonprofit corporations, see Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficiente União do Vegetal, 546 U. S. 418 (2006) (RFRA); Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. ___ (2012) (Free Exercise); Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520 (1993) (Free Exercise), and HHS concedes that a nonprofit corporation can be a “person” within the meaning of RFRA. See Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 17; Reply Brief in No. 13–354, at 7–8.
This concession effectively dispatches any argument that the term “person” as used in RFRA does not reach the closely held corporations involved in these cases. No known understanding of the term “person” includes some but not all corporations. The term “person” sometimes encompasses artificial persons (as the Dictionary Act instructs), and it sometimes is limited to natural persons. But no conceivable definition of the term includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but not for-profit corporations. Cf. Clark v. Martinez, 543 U. S. 371, 378 (2005) (“To give th[e] same words a different meaning for each category would be to invent a statute rather than interpret one”).
The principal argument advanced by HHS and the principal dissent regarding RFRA protection for Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel focuses not on the statutory term “person,” but on the phrase “exercise of religion.” According to HHS and the dissent, these corporations are not protected by RFRA because they cannot exercise religion. Neither HHS nor the dissent, however, provides any persuasive explanation for this conclusion.
Is it because of the corporate form? The corporate form alone cannot provide the explanation because, as we have pointed out, HHS concedes that nonprofit corporations can be protected by RFRA. The dissent suggests that nonprofit corporations are special because furthering their reli-gious “autonomy . . . often furthers individual religious freedom as well.” Post, at 15 (quoting Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos, 483 U. S. 327, 342 (1987) (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment)). But this principle appliesequally to for-profit corporations: Furthering their re-ligious freedom also “furthers individual religious freedom.” In these cases, for example, allowing Hobby Lobby, Con-estoga, and Mardel to assert RFRA claims protects the religious liberty of the Greens and the Hahns.
If the corporate form is not enough, what about the profit-making objective? In Braunfeld, 366 U. S. 599 , we entertained the free-exercise claims of individuals who were attempting to make a profit as retail merchants, and the Court never even hinted that this objective precluded their claims. As the Court explained in a later case, the “exercise of religion” involves “not only belief and profession but the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts” that are “engaged in for religious reasons.” Smith, 494 U. S., at 877. Business practices that are compelled or limited by the tenets of a religious doctrine fall comfortably within that definition. Thus, a law that “operates so as to make the practice of . . . religious beliefs more expensive” in the context of business activities imposes a burden on the exercise of religion. Braunfeld, supra, at 605; see United States v. Lee, 455 U. S. 252, 257 (1982) (recognizing that “compulsory participation in the social security system interferes with [Amish employers’] free exercise rights”).
If, as Braunfeld recognized, a sole proprietorship that seeks to make a profit may assert a free-exercise claim, why can’t Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel do the same?
Some lower court judges have suggested that RFRA does not protect for-profit corporations because the purpose of such corporations is simply to make money. This argument flies in the face of modern corporate law. “Each American jurisdiction today either expressly or by implication authorizes corporations to be formed under its general corporation act for any lawful purpose or business.” 1 J. Cox & T. Hazen, Treatise of the Law of Corporations §4:1, p. 224 (3d ed. 2010) (emphasis added); see 1A W. Fletcher, Cyclopedia of the Law of Corporations §102 (rev. ed. 2010). While it is certainly true that a central objective of for-profit corporations is to make money, modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so. For-profit corporations, with ownership approval, support a wide variety of charitable causes, and it is not at all uncommon for such corporations to further humanitarian and other altruistic objectives. Many examples come readily to mind. So long as its owners agree, a for-profit corporation may take costly pollution-control and energy-conservation measures that go beyond what the law requires. A for-profit corporation that operates facilities in other countries may exceed the requirements of local law regarding working conditions and benefits. If for-profit corporations may pursue such worthy objectives, there is no apparent reason why they may not further religious objectives as well.
HHS would draw a sharp line between nonprofit corporations (which, HHS concedes, are protected by RFRA) and for-profit corporations (which HHS would leave unprotected), but the actual picture is less clear-cut. Not all corporations that decline to organize as nonprofits do so in order to maximize profit. For example, organizations with religious and charitable aims might organize as for-profit corporations because of the potential advantages of that corporate form, such as the freedom to participate in lobbying for legislation or campaigning for political candidates who promote their religious or charitable goals. In fact, recognizing the inherent compatibility between establishing a for-profit corporation and pursuing nonprofit goals, States have increasingly adopted laws formally recognizing hybrid corporate forms. Over half of the States, for instance, now recognize the “benefit corporation,” a dual-purpose entity that seeks to achieve both a benefit for the public and a profit for its owners.
In any event, the objectives that may properly be pursued by the companies in these cases are governed by the laws of the States in which they were incorporated—Pennsylvania and Oklahoma—and the laws of those States permit for-profit corporations to pursue “any lawful purpose” or “act,” including the pursuit of profit in conformity with the owners’ religious principles. 15 Pa. Cons. Stat. §1301 (2001) (“Corporations may be incorporated under this subpart for any lawful purpose or purposes”); Okla. Stat., Tit. 18, §§1002, 1005 (West 2012) (“[E]very corporation, whether profit or not for profit” may “be incorporated or organized . . . to conduct or promote any lawful business or purposes”); see also §1006(A)(3); Brief for State of Oklahoma as Amicus Curiae in No. 13–354.
HHS and the principal dissent make one additional argument in an effort to show that a for-profit corporation cannot engage in the “exercise of religion” within the meaning of RFRA: HHS argues that RFRA did no more than codify this Court’s pre-Smith Free Exercise Clause precedents, and because none of those cases squarely held that a for-profit corporation has free-exercise rights, RFRA does not confer such protection. This argument has many flaws.
First, nothing in the text of RFRA as originally enacted suggested that the statutory phrase “exercise of religion under the First Amendment” was meant to be tied to this Court’s pre-Smith interpretation of that Amendment. When first enacted, RFRA defined the “exercise of religion” to mean “the exercise of religion under the First Amendment”—not the exercise of religion as recognized only by then-existing Supreme Court precedents. 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–2(4) (1994 ed.). When Congress wants to link the meaning of a statutory provision to a body of this Court’s case law, it knows how to do so. See, e.g., Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1) (authorizing habeas relief from a state-court decision that “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States”).
Second, if the original text of RFRA was not clear enough on this point—and we think it was—the amendment of RFRA through RLUIPA surely dispels any doubt. That amendment deleted the prior reference to the First Amendment, see 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–2(4) (2000 ed.) (incorporating §2000cc–5), and neither HHS nor the principal dissent can explain why Congress did this if it wanted to tie RFRA coverage tightly to the specific holdings of our pre-Smith free-exercise cases. Moreover, as discussed, the amendment went further, providing that the exercise of religion “shall be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.” §2000cc–3(g). It is simply not possible to read these provisions as restricting the concept of the “exercise of religion” to those practices specifically addressed in our pre-Smith decisions.
Third, the one pre-Smith case involving the free-exercise rights of a for-profit corporation suggests, if anything, that for-profit corporations possess such rights. In Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market of Mass., Inc., 366 U. S. 617 (1961) , the Massachusetts Sunday closing law was challenged by a kosher market that was organized as a for-profit corporation, by customers of the market, and by a rabbi. The Commonwealth argued that the corporation lacked “standing” to assert a free-exercise claim, but not one member of the Court expressed agreement with that argument. The plurality opinion for four Justices rejected the First Amendment claim on the merits based on the reasoning in Braunfeld, and reserved decision on the question whether the corporation had “standing” to raise the claim. See 366 U. S., at 631. The three dissenters, Justices Douglas, Brennan, and Stewart, found the law unconstitutional as applied to the corporation and the other challengers and thus implicitly recognized their right to assert a free-exercise claim. See id., at 642 (Brennan, J., joined by Stewart, J., dissenting); McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U. S. 420 –579 (1961) (Douglas, J., dissenting as to related cases including Gallagher). Fi-nally, Justice Frankfurter’s opinion, which was joined by Justice Harlan, upheld the Massachusetts law on the merits but did not question or reserve decision on the issue of the right of the corporation or any of the other challengers to be heard. See McGowan, 366 U. S., at 521–522. It is quite a stretch to argue that RFRA, a law enacted to provide very broad protection for religious liberty,left for-profit corporations unprotected simply because in Gallagher—the only pre-Smith case in which the issue was raised—a majority of the Justices did not find it necessary to decide whether the kosher market’s corporate status barred it from raising a free-exercise claim.
Finally, the results would be absurd if RFRA merely restored this Court’s pre-Smith decisions in ossified form and did not allow a plaintiff to raise a RFRA claim unless that plaintiff fell within a category of plaintiffs one of whom had brought a free-exercise claim that this Court entertained in the years before Smith. For example, we are not aware of any pre-Smith case in which this Court entertained a free-exercise claim brought by a resident noncitizen. Are such persons also beyond RFRA’s protective reach simply because the Court never addressed their rights before Smith?
Presumably in recognition of the weakness of this argument, both HHS and the principal dissent fall back on the broader contention that the Nation lacks a tradition of exempting for-profit corporations from generally applicable laws. By contrast, HHS contends, statutes like Title VII, 42 U. S. C. §2000e–19(A), expressly exempt churches and other nonprofit religious institutions but not for-profit corporations. See Brief for HHS in No. 13–356, p. 26. In making this argument, however, HHS did not call to our attention the fact that some federal statutes do exempt categories of entities that include for-profit corporations from laws that would otherwise require these entities to engage in activities to which they object on grounds of conscience. See, e.g., 42 U. S. C. §300a–7(b)(2); §238n(a). If Title VII and similar laws show anything, it isthat Congress speaks with specificity when it intends a religious accommodation not to extend to for-profitcorporations.
Finally, HHS contends that Congress could not have wanted RFRA to apply to for-profit corporations because it is difficult as a practical matter to ascertain the sincere “beliefs” of a corporation. HHS goes so far as to raise the specter of “divisive, polarizing proxy battles over the religious identity of large, publicly traded corporations such as IBM or General Electric.” Brief for HHS in No. 13–356, at 30.
These cases, however, do not involve publicly traded corporations, and it seems unlikely that the sort of corporate giants to which HHS refers will often assert RFRA claims. HHS has not pointed to any example of a publicly traded corporation asserting RFRA rights, and numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring. For example, the idea that unrelated shareholders—including institutional investors with their own set of stakeholders—would agree to run a corporation under the same religious beliefs seems improbable. In any event, we have no occasion in these cases to consider RFRA’s applicability to such companies. The companies in the cases before us are closely held corporations, each owned and controlled by members of a single family, and no one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs.
HHS has also provided no evidence that the purported problem of determining the sincerity of an asserted religious belief moved Congress to exclude for-profit corporations from RFRA’s protection. On the contrary, the scope of RLUIPA shows that Congress was confident of the ability of the federal courts to weed out insincere claims. RLUIPA applies to “institutionalized persons,” a category that consists primarily of prisoners, and by the time of RLUIPA’s enactment, the propensity of some prisoners to assert claims of dubious sincerity was well documented. Nevertheless, after our decision in City of Boerne, Congress enacted RLUIPA to preserve the right of prisoners to raise religious liberty claims. If Congress thought that the federal courts were up to the job of dealing with insincere prisoner claims, there is no reason to believe that Congress limited RFRA’s reach out of concern for the seem-ingly less difficult task of doing the same in corporate cases. And if, as HHS seems to concede, Congress wanted RFRA to apply to nonprofit corporations, see, Reply Brief in No. 13–354, at 7–8, what reason is there to think that Congress believed that spotting insincere claims wouldbe tougher in cases involving for-profits?
HHS and the principal dissent express concern about the possibility of disputes among the owners of corporations, but that is not a problem that arises because of RFRA or that is unique to this context. The owners of closely held corporations may—and sometimes do—disagree about the conduct of business. 1 Treatise of the Law of Corporations §14:11. And even if RFRA did not exist, the owners of a company might well have a dispute relating to religion. For example, some might want a company’s stores to remain open on the Sabbath in order to make more money, and others might want the stores to close for religious reasons. State corporate law provides a ready means for resolving any conflicts by, for example, dictating how a corporation can establish its governing structure. See, e.g., ibid; id., §3:2; Del. Code Ann., Tit. 8, §351 (2011) (providing that certificate of incorporation may provide how “the business of the corporation shall be managed”). Courts will turn to that structure and the underlying state law in resolving disputes.
For all these reasons, we hold that a federal regulation’s restriction on the activities of a for-profit closely held corporation must comply with RFRA.
Because RFRA applies in these cases, we must next ask whether the HHS contraceptive mandate “substantially burden[s]” the exercise of religion. 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(a). We have little trouble concluding that it does.
As we have noted, the Hahns and Greens have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that, as HHS acknowledges, see Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 9, n. 4, may result in the destruction of an embryo. By requiring the Hahns and Greens and their companies to arrange for such coverage, the HHS mandate demands that they engage in conduct that seriously violates their religious beliefs.
If the Hahns and Greens and their companies do not yield to this demand, the economic consequences will be severe. If the companies continue to offer group health plans that do not cover the contraceptives at issue, they will be taxed $100 per day for each affected individual. 26 U. S. C. §4980D. For Hobby Lobby, the bill could amount to $1.3 million per day or about $475 million per year; for Conestoga, the assessment could be $90,000 per day or $33 million per year; and for Mardel, it could be $40,000 per day or about $15 million per year. These sums are surely substantial.
It is true that the plaintiffs could avoid these assessments by dropping insurance coverage altogether and thus forcing their employees to obtain health insurance on one of the exchanges established under ACA. But if at least one of their full-time employees were to qualify for a subsidy on one of the government-run exchanges, this course would also entail substantial economic consequences. The companies could face penalties of $2,000 per employee each year. §4980H. These penalties would amount to roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.
Although these totals are high, amici supporting HHS have suggested that the $2,000 per-employee penalty is actually less than the average cost of providing health insurance, see Brief for Religious Organizations 22, and therefore, they claim, the companies could readily eliminate any substantial burden by forcing their employees to obtain insurance in the government exchanges. We do not generally entertain arguments that were not raised below and are not advanced in this Court by any party, see United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Mitchell, 451 U. S. 56 , n. 2 (1981); Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520 , n. 13 (1979); Knetsch v. United States, 364 U. S. 361, 370 (1960) , and there are strong reasons to adhere to that practice in these cases. HHS, which presumably could have compiled the relevant statistics, has never made this argument—not in its voluminous briefing or at oral argument in this Court nor, to our knowledge, in any of the numerous cases in which the issue now before us has been litigated around the country. As things now stand, we do not even know what the Government’s position might be with respect to these amici’s intensely empirical argument. For this same reason, the plaintiffs have never had an opportunity to respond to this novel claim that—contrary to their longstanding practice and that of most large employers—they would be better off discarding their employer insurance plans altogether.
Even if we were to reach this argument, we would find it unpersuasive. As an initial matter, it entirely ignores the fact that the Hahns and Greens and their companies have religious reasons for providing health-insurance coverage for their employees. Before the advent of ACA, they were not legally compelled to provide insurance, but they nevertheless did so—in part, no doubt, for conventional business reasons, but also in part because their religious beliefs govern their relations with their employees. See App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 13–356, p. 11g; App. in No. 13–354, at 139.
Putting aside the religious dimension of the decision to provide insurance, moreover, it is far from clear that the net cost to the companies of providing insurance is more than the cost of dropping their insurance plans and paying the ACA penalty. Health insurance is a benefit that employees value. If the companies simply eliminated that benefit and forced employees to purchase their own insurance on the exchanges, without offering additional compensation, it is predictable that the companies would face a competitive disadvantage in retaining and attracting skilled workers. See App. in No. 13–354, at 153.
The companies could attempt to make up for the elimination of a group health plan by increasing wages, but this would be costly. Group health insurance is generally less expensive than comparable individual coverage, so the amount of the salary increase needed to fully compensate for the termination of insurance coverage may well exceed the cost to the companies of providing the insurance. In addition, any salary increase would have to take into account the fact that employees must pay income taxes on wages but not on the value of employer-provided health insurance. 26 U. S. C. §106(a). Likewise, employers can deduct the cost of providing health insurance, see §162(a)(1), but apparently cannot deduct the amount of the penalty that they must pay if insurance is not pro-vided; that difference also must be taken into account. Given these economic incentives, it is far from clear that it would be financially advantageous for an employer to drop coverage and pay the penalty.
In sum, we refuse to sustain the challenged regulations on the ground—never maintained by the Government—that dropping insurance coverage eliminates the substantial burden that the HHS mandate imposes. We doubt that the Congress that enacted RFRA—or, for that matter, ACA—would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans.
In taking the position that the HHS mandate does not impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, HHS’s main argument (echoed by the principal dissent) is basically that the connection between what the objecting parties must do (provide health-insurance coverage for four methods of contraception that may operate after the fertilization of an egg) and the end that they find to be morally wrong (destruction of an embryo) is simply too attenuated. Brief for HHS in 13–354, pp. 31–34; post, at 22–23. HHS and the dissent note that providing the coverage would not itself result in the destruction of an embryo; that would occur only if an employee chose to take advantage of the coverage and to use one of the four methods at issue. Ibid.
This argument dodges the question that RFRA presents (whether the HHS mandate imposes a substantial burden on the ability of the objecting parties to conduct business in accordance with their religious beliefs) and instead addresses a very different question that the federal courts have no business addressing (whether the religious belief asserted in a RFRA case is reasonable). The Hahns and Greens believe that providing the coverage demanded by the HHS regulations is connected to the destruction of an embryo in a way that is sufficient to make it immoral for them to provide the coverage. This belief implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question, HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step. See, e.g., Smith, 494 U. S., at 887 (“Repeatedly and in many different contexts, we have warned that courts must not presume to determine . . . the plausibility of a religious claim”); Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U. S. 680, 699 (1989) ; Presbyterian Church in U. S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U. S. 440, 450 (1969) .
Moreover, in Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707 (1981) , we considered and rejected an argument that is nearly identical to the one now urged by HHS and the dissent. In Thomas, a Jehovah’s Witness was initially employed making sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses, but he was later transferred to a job making turrets for tanks. Id., at 710. Because he objected on religious grounds to participating in the manufacture of weapons, he lost his job and sought unemployment compensation. Ruling against the em-ployee, the state court had difficulty with the line thatthe employee drew between work that he found to be con-sistent with his religious beliefs (helping to manufacture steel that was used in making weapons) and work that he found morally objectionable (helping to make the weapons themselves). This Court, however, held that “it is not for us to say that the line he drew was an unreasonable one.” Id., at 715.
Similarly, in these cases, the Hahns and Greens and their companies sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial. Instead, our “narrow function . . . in this context is to determine” whether the line drawn reflects “an honest conviction,” id., at 716, and there is no dispute that it does.
HHS nevertheless compares these cases to decisions in which we rejected the argument that the use of general tax revenue to subsidize the secular activities of religious institutions violated the Free Exercise Clause. See Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U. S. 672, 689 (1971) (plurality); Board of Ed. of Central School Dist. No. 1 v. Allen, 392 U. S. 236 –249 (1968). But in those cases, while the subsidies were clearly contrary to the challengers’ views on a secular issue, namely, proper church-state relations, the challengers never articulated a religious objection to the subsidies. As we put it in Tilton, they were “unable to identify any coercion directed at the practice or exercise of their religious beliefs.” 403 U. S., at 689 (plurality opinion); see Allen, supra, at 249 (“[A]ppellants have not contended that the New York law in any way coerces them as individuals in the practice of their religion”). Here, in contrast, the plaintiffs do assert that funding the specific contraceptive methods at issue violates their religious beliefs, and HHS does not question their sincerity. Because the contraceptive mandate forces them to pay an enormous sum of money—as much as $475 million per year in the case of Hobby Lobby—if they insist on providing insurance coverage in accordance with their religious beliefs, the mandate clearly imposes a substantial burden on those beliefs.
Since the HHS contraceptive mandate imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, we must move on and decide whether HHS has shown that the mandate both “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(b).
HHS asserts that the contraceptive mandate serves a variety of important interests, but many of these are couched in very broad terms, such as promoting “public health” and “gender equality.” Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 46, 49. RFRA, however, contemplates a “more focused” inquiry: It “requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law ‘to the person’—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened.” O’Centro, 546 U. S., at 430–431 (quoting §2000bb–1(b)). This requires us to “loo[k] beyond broadly formulated interests” and to “scrutiniz[e] the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants”—in other words, to look to the marginal interest in enforcing the contraceptive mandate in these cases. O Centro, supra, at 431.
In addition to asserting these very broadly framed interests, HHS maintains that the mandate serves a compelling interest in ensuring that all women have access to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing. See Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 14–15, 49; see Brief for HHS in No. 13–356, at 10, 48. Under our cases, women (and men) have a constitutional right to obtain contraceptives, see Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 –486 (1965), and HHS tells us that “[s]tudies have demonstrated that even moderate copayments for preventive services can deter patients from receiving those services.” Brief for HHS in No. 13–354, at 50 (internal quotation marks omitted).
The objecting parties contend that HHS has not shown that the mandate serves a compelling government interest, and it is arguable that there are features of ACA that support that view. As we have noted, many employees—those covered by grandfathered plans and those who work for employers with fewer than 50 employees—may have no contraceptive coverage without cost sharing at all.
HHS responds that many legal requirements have exceptions and the existence of exceptions does not in itself indicate that the principal interest served by a law is not compelling. Even a compelling interest may be outweighed in some circumstances by another even weightier consideration. In these cases, however, the interest served by one of the biggest exceptions, the exception for grandfathered plans, is simply the interest of employers in avoiding the inconvenience of amending an existing plan. Grandfathered plans are required “to comply with a subset of the Affordable Care Act’s health reform provisions” that provide what HHS has described as “particularly significant protections.” 75 Fed. Reg. 34540 (2010). But the contraceptive mandate is expressly excluded from this subset. Ibid.
We find it unnecessary to adjudicate this issue. We will assume that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods is compelling within the meaning of RFRA, and we will proceed to consider the final prong of the RFRA test, i.e., whether HHS has shown that the contraceptive mandate is “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” §2000bb–1(b)(2).
The least-restrictive-means standard is exceptionally demanding, see City of Boerne, 521 U. S., at 532, and it is not satisfied here. HHS has not shown that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objecting parties in these cases. See §§2000bb–1(a), (b) (requiring the Government to “demonstrat[e] that application of [a substantial] burden to the person . . . is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest” (emphasis added)).
The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections. This would certainly be less restrictive of the plaintiffs’ religious liberty, and HHS has not shown, see §2000bb–1(b)(2), that this is not a viable alternative. HHS has not provided any estimate of the average cost per employee of providing access tothese contraceptives, two of which, according to the FDA, are designed primarily for emergency use. See Birth Control: Medicines to Help You, online at http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/byaudience/forwomen/freepublications/ucm313215.htm. Nor has HHS provided any statistics regarding the number of employees who might be affected because they work for corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel. Nor has HHS told us that it is unable to provide such statistics. It seems likely, however, that the cost of providing the forms of contraceptives at issue in these cases (if not all FDA-approved contraceptives) would be minor when compared with the overall cost of ACA. According to one of the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent forecasts, ACA’s insurance-coverage provisions will cost the Federal Government more than $1.3 trillion through the next decade. See CBO, Updated Estimates of the Effects of the Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act, April 2014, p. 2. If, as HHS tells us, providing all women with cost-free access to all FDA-approved methods of contraception is a Government interest of the highest order, it is hard to understand HHS’s argument that it cannot be required under RFRA to pay anything in order to achieve this important goal.
HHS contends that RFRA does not permit us to take this option into account because “RFRA cannot be used to require creation of entirely new programs.” Brief for HHS in 13–354, at 15. But we see nothing in RFRA that supports this argument, and drawing the line between the “creation of an entirely new program” and the modification of an existing program (which RFRA surely allows) would be fraught with problems. We do not doubt that cost may be an important factor in the least-restrictive-means analysis, but both RFRA and its sister statute, RLUIPA, may in some circumstances require the Government to expend additional funds to accommodate citizens’ religious beliefs. Cf. §2000cc–3(c) (RLUIPA: “[T]his chapter may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise.”). HHS’s view that RFRA can never require the Government to spend even a small amount reflects a judgment about the importance of religious liberty that was not shared by the Congress that enacted that law.
In the end, however, we need not rely on the option of a new, government-funded program in order to conclude that the HHS regulations fail the least-restrictive-means test. HHS itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs. As we explained above, HHS has already established an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections. See supra, at 9–10, and nn. 8–9. Under that accommodation, the organization can self-certify that it opposes providing coverage for particular contraceptive services. See 45 CFR §§147.131(b)(4), (c)(1); 26 CFR §§54.9815–2713A(a)(4), (b). If the organization makes such a certification, the organization’s insurance issuer or third-party administrator must “[e]xpressly exclude contraceptive coverage from the group health insurance coverage provided in connection with the group health plan” and “[p]rovide separate payments for any contraceptive services required to be covered” without imposing “any cost-sharing requirements . . . on the eligible organization, the group health plan, or plan participants or beneficiaries.” 45 CFR §147.131(c)(2); 26 CFR §54.9815–2713A(c)(2).
We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims. At a minimum, however, it does not impinge on the plaintiffs’ religious belief that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion, and it serves HHS’s stated interests equally well.
The principal dissent identifies no reason why this accommodation would fail to protect the asserted needs of women as effectively as the contraceptive mandate, and there is none. Under the accommodation, the plaintiffs’ female employees would continue to receive contraceptive coverage without cost sharing for all FDA-approved contraceptives, and they would continue to “face minimal logistical and administrative obstacles,” post, at 28 (internal quotation marks omitted), because their employers’ insurers would be responsible for providing information and coverage, see, e.g., 45 CFR §§147.131(c)–(d); cf. 26 CFR §§54.9815–2713A(b), (d). Ironically, it is the dissent’s approach that would “[i]mped[e] women’s receipt of benefits by ‘requiring them to take steps to learn about, and to sign up for, a new government funded and administered health benefit,’ ” post, at 28, because the dissent would effectively compel religious employers to drop health-insurance coverage altogether, leaving their employees to find individual plans on government-run exchanges or elsewhere. This is indeed “scarcely what Congress contemplated.” Ibid.
HHS and the principal dissent argue that a ruling in favor of the objecting parties in these cases will lead to a flood of religious objections regarding a wide variety of medical procedures and drugs, such as vaccinations and blood transfusions, but HHS has made no effort to substantiate this prediction. HHS points to no evidence that insurance plans in existence prior to the enactment of ACA excluded coverage for such items. Nor has HHS provided evidence that any significant number of employers sought exemption, on religious grounds, from any of ACA’s coverage requirements other than the contraceptive mandate.
It is HHS’s apparent belief that no insurance-coverage mandate would violate RFRA—no matter how significantly it impinges on the religious liberties of employers—that would lead to intolerable consequences. Under HHS’s view, RFRA would permit the Government to require all employers to provide coverage for any medical procedure allowed by law in the jurisdiction in question—for instance, third-trimester abortions or assisted suicide. The owners of many closely held corporations could not in good conscience provide such coverage, and thus HHS would effectively exclude these people from full participation in the economic life of the Nation. RFRA was enacted to prevent such an outcome.
In any event, our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate. Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.
The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction. See post, at 32–33. Our decision today provides no such shield. The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.
HHS also raises for the first time in this Court the argument that applying the contraceptive mandate to for-profit employers with sincere religious objections is essential to the comprehensive health-insurance scheme that ACA establishes. HHS analogizes the contraceptive mandate to the requirement to pay Social Security taxes, which we upheld in Lee despite the religious objection of an employer, but these cases are quite different. Our holding in Lee turned primarily on the special problems associated with a national system of taxation. We noted that “[t]he obligation to pay the social security tax initially is not fundamentally different from the obligation to pay income taxes.” 455 U. S., at 260. Based on that premise, we explained that it was untenable to allow individuals to seek exemptions from taxes based on religious objections to particular Government expenditures: “If, for example, a religious adherent believes war is a sin, and if a certain percentage of the federal budget can be identified as devoted to war-related activities, such individuals would have a similarly valid claim to be exempt from paying that percentage of the income tax.” Ibid. We observed that “[t]he tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.” Ibid.; see O Centro, 546 U. S., at 435.
Lee was a free-exercise, not a RFRA, case, but if the issue in Lee were analyzed under the RFRA framework, the fundamental point would be that there simply is no less restrictive alternative to the categorical requirement to pay taxes. Because of the enormous variety of government expenditures funded by tax dollars, allowing tax-payers to withhold a portion of their tax obligations on religious grounds would lead to chaos. Recognizingexemptions from the contraceptive mandate is very different. ACA does not create a large national pool of tax revenue for use in purchasing healthcare coverage. Rather, individual employers like the plaintiffs purchase insurance for their own employees. And contrary to the principal dissent’s characterization, the employers’ contributions do not necessarily funnel into “undifferentiated funds.” Post, at 23. The accommodation established by HHS requires issuers to have a mechanism by which to “segregate premium revenue collected from the eligible organization from the monies used to provide payments for contraceptive services.” 45 CFR §147.131(c)(2)(ii). Recognizing a religious accommodation under RFRA for particular coverage requirements, therefore, does not threaten the viability of ACA’s comprehensive scheme in the way that recognizing religious objections to particular expenditures from general tax revenues would.
In its final pages, the principal dissent reveals that its fundamental objection to the claims of the plaintiffs is an objection to RFRA itself. The dissent worries about forcing the federal courts to apply RFRA to a host of claims made by litigants seeking a religious exemption from generally applicable laws, and the dissent expresses a desire to keep the courts out of this business. See post, at 32–35. In making this plea, the dissent reiterates a point made forcefully by the Court in Smith. 494 U. S., at 888–889 (applying the Sherbert test to all free-exercise claims “would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind”). But Congress, in enacting RFRA, took the position that “the compelling interest test as set forth in prior Federal court rulings is a workable test forstriking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.” 42 U. S. C. §2000bb(a)(5). The wisdom of Congress’s judgment on this matter is not our concern. Our responsibility is to enforce RFRA as written, and under the standard that RFRA prescribes, the HHS contraceptive mandate is unlawful.
* * *
The contraceptive mandate, as applied to closely held corporations, violates RFRA. Our decision on that statutory question makes it unnecessary to reach the First Amendment claim raised by Conestoga and the Hahns.
The judgment of the Tenth Circuit in No. 13–354 is affirmed; the judgment of the Third Circuit in No. 13–356 is reversed, and that case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.