Appeals Courts Split on Corporate Religious Rights

Last week I wrote about Sarah Posner’s excellent work on Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit claiming a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptions coverage mandate, which was validated by a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. Now a 3d Circuit panel has gone the other way in a suit brought by a Pennsylvania corporation that manufactures wood cabinets.

SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston has the summary:

Ruling in the case of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Health and Human Services Department (Circuit docket 13-1144), the Third Circuit panel declared that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” even though they are operated by religiously devout owners. It thus turned aside the business firm’s claim that the contraception mandate violates the firm’s rights under the First Amendment and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act….

The Third Circuit majority concluded that the First Amendment right to exercise a religious belief — under the Free Exercise Clause — is a “personal right” that exists for the benefit of human beings, not artificial “persons” like corporations. Religious belief, it said, develops in the “minds and hearts of individuals.” In drawing this conclusion, he noted the contrary view announced by the Tenth Circuit Court, and said that “we respectfully disagree.”

The majority remarked: “We do not see how a for-profit, ‘artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law,’ that was created to make money could exercise such an inherently ‘human’ right.” The opinion said that the judges could not find a single court opinion, before the lawsuits against the contraception mandate began, that had found that a profit-making corporation doing ordinary business had its own right of “free exercise” of religion.

There was a long dissent to this decision. But in any event, with guidance from two circuits now sharply divided, the odds of this issue going to the U.S. Supreme Court just went up significantly. And Lord only knows what will happen there.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.