Sixth Circuit Issues Strong Opinion Against For-Profit Religious Rights in Eden Foods Case


In the battle over the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, the secular, for-profit corporations challenging the law’s contraception requirement have focused almost all of their arguments on the insidious overreach of the federal government into the personal religious practices of business owners. Of course, those craft chains, auto parts manufacturers, and processed foods businesses have done this on purpose. That’s because they’re engaged in a legal sleight-of-hand, a shell game in which one set of arguments serves as bait while another more pernicious argument advances. No matter what conservatives argue, the for-profit challenges to the birth control benefit are not about religious liberty, they are about a lack of corporate accountability.

On Thursday, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made that clear in its opinion in Eden Foods v. Sebelius, when it held the individual plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the mandate and that the for-profit, secular corporate plaintiff was not a “person” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Following its earlier decision in Autocam, the court affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the Obama administration from enforcing the mandate against Eden Foods and sent the case back to the lower court to be dismissed for a lack of jurisdiction.

The opinion dismissing Eden Foods’ claims isn’t particularly long, but it makes clear the court is tiring of these challenges and sees them for what they really are: cloaked attempts to manipulate corporate law for individual gain. The plaintiff, Michael Potter—founder, chairperson, president, and shareholder of Eden Foods—is a Roman Catholic who challenged the mandate on the grounds it violates his “deeply held religious beliefs.” Citing an interview in Salon with Irin Carmon in footnote, the Sixth Circuit noted those beliefs were actually more of a “laissez-faire, anti-government screed” than a reflection of Roman Catholic ideology.

From there, the Sixth Circuit further uncloaked conservatives’ attempts to upend corporate law precedent under the guise of religious freedom. First, the court noted a panel of Sixth Circuit judges already came to the same conclusion earlier in the Autocam case, which meant absent intervention from the Supreme Court or an overruling of the Autocam decision by the entire Sixth Circuit it was bound to follow that decision here. But, the court noted, even if Autocam hadn’t been decided, the Supreme Court already set the law in 1982 in United States v. Lee, when it declined to grant a Social Security tax exemption under the Free Exercise Clause to Amish employers. The Supreme Court wrote:

When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from [statutory schemes] to an employer operates to impost the employer’s religious faith on the employees.

As to Eden Foods’ and Potter’s claims, the Sixth Circuit summed up the conservatives’ strategy and arguments like this:

By incorporating his business, Potter voluntarily forfeited his rights to bring individual actions for alleged corporate injuries in exchange for the liability and financial protections otherwise afforded him by utilization of the corporate form. Adoption of Potter’s argument that he should not be liable individually for corporate debts and wrongs, but still should be allowed to challenge, as an individual, duties and restrictions placed upon the corporation would undermine completely the principles upon which our nation’s corporate laws and structures are based. We are not inclined to so ignore law, precedent, and reason.

As Gretchen Borchelt, director of state reproductive health policy at the National Women’s Law Center, told RH Reality Check in an email, “This unanimous decision by the Sixth Circuit in Eden Foods confirms once again that for-profit corporations and their owners cannot deny their employees health insurance coverage of birth control as guaranteed under the health care law. A boss’s religious belief should not trump women’s health and access to the health care they need.”

The Sixth Circuit’s decision doesn’t change the litigation landscape of the contraception benefit much for now. In addition to the Sixth Circuit, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has also ruled against the challenges, while the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the Hobby Lobby case, ruled in favor of corporate for-profit religious rights. Both the Obama administration and Hobby Lobby have asked the Supreme Court to review that decision, and while the Roberts Court has not acted on that request yet, it’s a safe bet it will sometime this term. The question is, will the Court that upended years of precedents in the the Citizens United decision to create corporate, constitutional speech rights do the same for corporate religious exercise rights?

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  • Joe.02

    I think the U.S. v. Lee language particularly damning, including the “binding on others” language. The Hosanna-Tabor ruling, e.g., spoke about the difference between internal decision-making of religious institutions and “outward acts.” This is one — particularly when it interferes with the employees, whose own money is involved here. I find it troubling when even a college interferes with their students, but for profit corporations … come on!

  • JMax

    The contraceptive coverage issue IS NOT a matter of free
    exercise of religion. It is a matter of compensation.

    An employee receives salary or wages and benefits in
    exchange for their labor. This is their compensation for the work that they do
    for their employer. The compensation may be any combination of money, vacation
    days, sick days, health insurance premium support, 401k dollar matching, etc.
    It is the employee who freely chooses what to do with the fruits of THEIR labor,
    their compensation. They can choose a luxury car or a rattle trap, American
    made or foreign made. They can buy liquor. They can gamble where it’s legal.
    They can use their vacation to go to a nudist colony or make the haj. They can
    invest in solar energy or oil production. They can do all this without
    infringing on the religious convictions of their employer.

    And they can choose to use contraceptives or not. They can
    make this choice based on their health needs, their family situation, their
    doctor’s recommendation or THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

    Their employer and his beliefs have absolutely nothing to do
    with it.

    If the employer was allowed to opt out of the contraceptive
    mandate, then the employee would be forced to use their salary or wages to buy
    contraceptives. As with health care premium support, the contraceptives have
    been obtained with the compensation that is the fruits of their labor.

    In which case, what has the employer gained? What is the
    difference? Either way the employer has paid the compensation with which the
    contraceptives are paid for, and the EMPLOYEE freely exercises THEIR OWN religion.

    • Joe.02

      I think the issue covers various things so it isn’t one single thing but appreciate the comment overall, including this:

      And they can choose to use contraceptives or not. They can make this choice based on their health needs, their family situation, their doctor’s recommendation or THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

      One thing that really bugs me is that at the end of the day, as a whole, if there is any “substantial effect” on free exercise at the end of the day, it probably is more an infringement on the employees. The government can protect them when regulating for profit secular businesses in this fashion as they do when they protect against religious discrimination generally at the work place.

  • survivor2011

    TAX the religious and non-profit bastards and see how quickly the corps jump ship.