The Best Legal Argument For Protection of For-Profits Under RFRA

Several people have asked me about the issue of the protection of for-profit corporations in the ongoing HHS contraceptives mandate controversy.  Generally, skeptics of such protection are apt to jump immediately to policy arguments — for example, “doesn’t giving religious liberty protection to for-profits threaten the rule of law?”

Set those policy arguments, which are certainly worth taking seriously, aside for the moment.  Instead, focus strictly on the legal arguments under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The very best legal argument that I have seen so far that RFRA does, indeed, protect for-profit corporations is set out in this amicus brief filed on behalf of several US Senators in the Hobby Lobby litigation, authored in part by Kevin Walsh (Richmond), and which I was fortunate to have an early look at.  Whatever policy concerns one might have, it seems to me that the Administration’s categorical exclusion of for-profits in its current proposed rule, and its reliance on certain definitions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, just is not going to fly in the RFRA context.

Here is one important part of the brief (at 17-18):

In formulating RFRA, Congress heard testimony about the need for greater protection for the free exercise of religion by organizations as well as individuals . . . .  And Congress did not limit RFRA’s protections to individuals. Rather, Congress provided that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a), employing a term that ordinarily encompasses “corporations, companies, associations, firms,  partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” 1 U.S.C. § 1.

Rather than reach the obviously incorrect conclusion that RFRA does not extend to corporations at all, the district court created an exception from RFRA’s coverage for “secular, for-profit corporations,” incorrectly concluding that such corporations “are not ‘persons’ for purposes of the RFRA.” Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, 870 F.Supp.2d 1278, 1288, 1291-92 (W.D. Okla. 2012). The district court reasoned that “[g]eneral business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion.” Id. at 1291. But the same can be said of corporations that unquestionably are “persons” under RFRA, such as hospitals, universities, and religious orders.

In attempting to justify their failure to respect religious objections to the HHS mandate asserted by for-profit corporations, Defendants have observed that Congress has sometimes distinguished between nonprofit religious organizations and for-profit secular organizations. 78 Fed. Reg. 8456, 8462 (Feb. 6, 2013) (discussing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). This demonstrates that Congress can distinguish between for-profit and nonprofit employers when it wishes to do so. But Congress made no such distinction in RFRA, which applies broadly and generally, subject only to displacement by later enactments that relax its reach in specific areas. Congress plainly wrote RFRA to include corporations, and neither RFRA nor the PPACA excludes for-profit corporations.

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