Summary of Oral Arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. Sebelius
by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
March 27, 2014
The post-oral-argument predictions in the Hobby Lobby case will continue to pour out as various entities (more or less interested in the outcome) make guesses about which way the Supreme Court will rule now that the justices have had a chance to quiz the attorneys for each side. The truth is, no one knows what will happen. Nevertheless, several things were noteworthy and other things not noteworthy, about this morning’s arguments. My review of the arguments (with emphasis on noteworthy sections) is below (page numbers are those listed on the Supreme Court’s official transcript).
Arguments began with Paul Clement, the attorney for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, presenting his clients’ case first. After some initial questions about whether Congress meant to include corporations within the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s (RFRA) protections (pp. 4-9), the justices’ opposition to Hobby Lobby’s position predictably centered on what other claims corporations might bring should the Court rule for the Green family and against the government. Justices wondered whether a ruling for Hobby Lobby would lead to corporations objecting on religious grounds to providing vaccinations, blood transfusions, and the like. Hobby Lobby’s attorney Paul Clement disputed this implication, pointing out that the Court could be trusted to wade through these issues under RFRA. Furthermore, if the “parade of horribles” was likely to occur, where was it? RFRA has been around since 1993. Clement pointed that none of the claims over which the justices expressed concern had been brought (or they were brought but didn’t succeed) “notwithstanding the fact that the government concedes that sole proprietorships and partnerships and nonprofit corporations are all protected by RFRA” (pp. 14-15).
Clement was then questioned about how a corporation could exercise religion (pp. 17-21), but the argument drifted off into a discussion of what costs Hobby Lobby would incur if it refused to cover the contraceptives (pp. 17-29). A discussion subsequently ensued about grandfathered health plans, and then moved to the concept of burden shifting between the objecting employer and its employees (pp. 29-38). Clement noted that exemptions are allowed in the conscience law context — if a doctor objects to providing an abortion, the woman is not prevented from obtaining the procedure, but she must go to another provider (p. 38). Clement also pointed out that the government has available to it a less restrictive alternative than the current HHS mandate — allowing employees of objecting corporations to go on the exchanges and subsidizing them like it does for employees at companies with fewer than 50 workers (p. 40).
At this point, the government’s attorney, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, took over and opened by arguing that the requested accommodation’s impact on third parties must be examined (pp. 43-46). He was then pressed by the justices on why the government insisted on hampering for-profit corporate religious exercise but not other religious exercise (pp. 46-49). When Verrilli said the Court had never ruled that corporations had a right to exercise religion, Justice Alito asked if “there’s something about the corporate form per se that is inconsistent with [a] free exercise claim” (p. 46). He followed: “Do you agree … that forprofit corporations must do nothing but maximize profits, they cannot have other aims … including religious aims?” (p. 47) Verrilli said no, but the point was made.
Verrilli then argued that ruling for Hobby Lobby would permit other problematic claims (pp. 52-53). He was pressed about the ability of corporations to have a racial identity (which courts have held), but said such a scenario was different from this case, which involves “exercise of religion — something the courts have never recognized corporations can do (p. 54). However, neither have the courts said corporations can’t engage in religious exercise. He was then pressed by Justice Kennedy about exemptions being given by the government apart from RFRA concerns (pp. 56-58). Verrilli explained that churches were exempt (as they have always been considered special under the law), but argued that the other companies and groups that do not have to pay were not actually subject to “exemptions” but were just categorized differently under the law (pp. 58-59). He was then pressed to explain when the grandfathered plans would end (pp. 59-60) — such continual “grandfathering” with slow and piecemeal implementation demonstrates the lack of a compelling government interest in enforcing the HHS mandate.
Justice Breyer then questioned Verrilli and asked him to explain how the government might meet the contraceptive needs of women less restrictively than enforcing the HHS mandate (pp. 64-69). Justice Kennedy quizzed Verrilli and said that according to the government’s logic, it seemed that a for-profit corporation could be forced to pay for abortions. Verrilli had to admit his logic allowed such a result, but he attempted to minimize the implication by noting there was no such law mandating abortions on the books at this time (p. 75). He followed by pointing out that the federal and state laws regarding abortion don’t consider the “particular forms of contraception” at issue in this case to cause abortions (pp. 75-77).
Verrilli had trouble batting away hypotheticals from Justices Alito and Breyer showing the problems corporations may face in bringing religious exercise claims (should the government win in this case) challenging laws banning kosher or halal slaughter methods (pp. 78-81). He concluded by pointing out that companies were going into the public sphere, and this would be the first time a company could be permitted to override statutory benefits under a Free Exercise or RFRA claim (p. 81). At the last moment, Verrilli was questioned by Justice Scalia about the government’s claim that it was not drawing a distinction between for-profits and non-profits (p. 82). Justice Scalia quite rightly noticed differences with how the government was treating the two groups (p. 82).
Paul Clement then had the last word. During his few minutes of rebuttal argument, Clement pointed out that Congress has applied the abortion conscience laws to all providers, including for-profit providers. But if Congress changed those laws, the government (according to its argument today) would take the position that RFRA does not apply to protect providers objecting on conscience grounds (p. 83). Clement also reminded the Court that if the government is going to burden religious exercise, its regulation has to do so in the least restrictive way. In this regard, Title X already provides for contraception coverage, so the government could provide contraceptive coverage through Title X (pp. 83-86). He also reminded the Court of one point Hobby Lobby already made in its brief — the government could simply pay for the contraceptives (p. 86). Clement concluded by noting that Congress has already spoken in an abundantly clear manner on the issue of religious freedom when it passed RFRA, but “[h]ere the agency has decided that it’s going to accommodate a subset of the persons protected by RFRA. In a choice between what Congress has provided and what the agency has done, the answer is clear” (p. 87).
With that, the arguments were concluded. A written decision in the case is expected in June 2014.