On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a corporation that provides manufacturing services for automotive and medical industries must comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate.
Autocam Corp. employs some 660 individuals in the United States and had joined the list of over 40 secular, for-profit corporations alleging the law’s requirement that certain employers provide contraception coverage in their employee health-care plans at no additional cost violates their religious rights.
“Religious liberty is a fundamental right, and everyone should be free to practice their beliefs as they see fit,” said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, in a statement following the decision. “However, companies cannot break the law by withholding coverage for health services just because they have a religious objection. Nearly every woman uses contraception at some point in her life. This law ensures that employers do not discriminate against their workers by making it difficult for them to obtain the care they need.”
The Sixth Circuit systematically rejected each of Autocam’s arguments against complying with the birth control benefit. First, the court noted, the legislative history and language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the federal law aimed at protecting religious exercise rights from federal laws that “substantially burden” those rights, makes clear Congress did not intend to protect for-profit, secular businesses. “In enacting RFRA, Congress specifically recognized that individuals and religious organizations enjoy free exercise rights under the First Amendment and, by extension, RFRA,” the court wrote. “In contrast, the legislative history makes no mention of for-profit corporations. This is a sufficient indication that Congress did not intend the term ‘person’ to cover entities like Autocam when it enacted RFRA.”
Once the court determined that secular, for-profit corporations are not “persons” under the RFRA, the court turned to Autocam’s attempts to rely on the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) to argue, by extension, that if the law recognizes some First Amendment rights for corporations, it should recognize all First Amendment rights for corporations. That argument, the court held, was “unavailing.”
In Citizens United, the Court “recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations” and collected a significant number of cases recognizing this rule. But these cases all arose under the Free Speech Clause. No analogous body of precedent exists with regard to the rights of secular, for-profit corporations under the Free Exercise Clause prior to the enactment of RFRA. The Free Exercise Clause and Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment have historically been interpreted in very different ways. Therefore, the Court’s recognition of rights for corporations like Autocam under the Free Speech Clause nearly twenty years after RFRA’s enactment does not require the conclusion that Autocam is a “person” that can exercise religion for purposes of RFRA.
In total, opponents to the birth control benefit have filed over 70 federal lawsuits challenging the rule, with federal courts across the country split on whether or not secular, for-profit businesses such as Autocam can be exempt from compliance. Tuesday’s decision is the third from a federal appellate court to rule on the issue. The Third Circuit previously held that a Pennsylvania cabinet-making company was unlikely to succeed in its challenge to the rule, and the Tenth Circuit held the opposite in a challenge from Oklahoma-based craft supply chain retailer Hobby Lobby.
With two federal courts ruling against claimed religious objections to the contraception benefit and another embracing them, the question is not if the Supreme Court will weigh in on the debate, but when. And the answer is: as early as this term. The federal government has until September 25 to decide whether to appeal the Tenth Circuit’s decision in Hobby Lobby. Meanwhile, lawyers for Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, the party from the Third Circuit decision, has said they intend to seek an appeal to the Supreme Court. They have until November 12 to file such a request.