Hobby Lobby ruling not green light for religion-based corporate policies

For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the right of for-profit private companies to hold and act upon their "sincere religious beliefs.''

The landmark ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by two companies owned by Christian families - Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby and Pennsylvania-based wood cabinet maker Conestoga Wood Specialties. Both companies objected to being forced by the Affordable Care Act to provide employees with specific kinds of birth control they viewed as akin to abortion.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled federal law cannot infringe on the sincere religious beliefs of closely-held, family-owned, private companies.

So what does Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling mean for businesses here in central Pennsylvania and throughout the country?

It depends on how far private companies wish to mix religion and business. In my practice at Scaringi Law, where one of my areas of focus is employment law, I'm expecting a lot of questions.

Here's a quick primer on what we can likely expect:

No required prayer services at Wal-Mart

Large, publicly traded companies like Walmart can't suddenly 'get religion.'

The court tailored its decision to closely-held, private companies. While the Walton family owns quite a bit of Wal-Mart stock, the company is far too big, and its stock too widely held, to fit the decision's relatively narrow definition of a closely-held company.

Another key term in the ruling is how the justices describe a company's "sincerely held religious beliefs."

While courts do not typically look very closely at an individual's religious beliefs to determine if they are sincerely held, a company looking to follow Hobby Lobby's lead should expect to demonstrate the sincerity and consistency of the religious beliefs it is claiming. A business owner who hasn't seen the inside of a church in years might have a difficult time proving his company's beliefs are sincerely held.

For true believers, however, we need only look to Lancaster and its abundance of Amish and Mennonite-owned businesses to see the kind of companies that could cite the ruling in claiming exception to certain federal mandates.

Likely next battles?

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced concern that for-profit entities may be tempted to opt out of any law they believe is incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs. She argued the decision puts the court on a very slippery slope.

"Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be 'perceived as favoring one religion over another,''' Ginsburg wrote. "The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.''

Looking ahead, I expect a family business or two will feel empowered to challenge certain employment laws.

Recently, a federal judge tossed the commonwealth's gay marriage ban, making it possible that Pennsylvania businesses could be required to certain benefits to spouses of gay employees. A family business may challenge that requirement on religious grounds, but I wouldn't necessarily count on victory in court.

Being forced to pay for a specific form of contraception that violates one's religious beliefs is far different than having to provide health insurance to the spouses of employees whose marriages are recognized by the state.

After all, businesses aren't being asked to pay for the wedding. They are merely being expected to extend the same employment benefits to all legally married employees and their families.

I also expect that some family businesses may attempt to use religious beliefs to justify attempts at undermining the civil and employment rights of their employees. It's also possible a company could attempt to opt out of portions of other federal laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act or federal anti-discrimination laws.

A caution to business owners

While it may be tempting to view Hobby Lobby as a way to avoid laws that can often cost companies time and money, business owners should not view this as a license to start ignoring federal law.

In order to seek an exception on religious grounds, companies will need to file a federal lawsuit. Business owners who attempt to unilaterally ignore federal law could find themselves in a great deal of trouble which could lead to a large verdict against their company.


    • Please enter your first name.
    • Please enter your last name.
    • This isn't a valid phone number.
      Please enter your phone number.
    • This number is my:
    • Please make a selection.
    • This isn't a valid email address.
      Please enter your email address.
    • Please make a selection.
  • Please enter a message.
Put Us On Your Side