Tenth Circuit Extends Federal Religious Protections to For-Profit Corporation

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals broke new ground by extending religious protections under federal law to for-profit corporations. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius (10th Cir. 2013). Previously, these protections had been given only to certain non-profit organizations. 

This decision arose from Hobby Lobby’s suit challenging the requirement under health care reform that businesses provide free contraception coverage in employee health plans. Hobby Lobby is one of more than 30 for-profit businesses seeking an exception from this requirement for religious reasons. Their argument is mainly based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” The court held that corporations qualify as “persons” under this law and are entitled to religious freedom. The Tenth Circuit sent the case back to the district court for further review, and Hobby Lobby was given a temporary shelter from the contraceptive coverage requirement. 

This was a divided decision of the court with a strong dissent from Judge Mary Briscoe, who labeled the majority opinion “pure judicial override” and said that the court “opened the flood gates” for other companies to challenge this and other federal laws. 

This decision is binding in the Tenth Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. However, since this issue is not often litigated, other circuit courts may look to this case for guidance. This is especially true since the federal government recently issued final regulations exempting certain non-profit religious institutions from the requirement to offer free contraceptive coverage, but not for-profit businesses.