[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that family-owned, profit-making businesses cannot challenge the new federal health care law’s birth control mandate on religious grounds. Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania company with 950 employees, maintains a policy not to support “anything that terminates a fertilized embryo.” The company objected to the provision of the mandate requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage to employees, including the “morning-after pill,” known as Plan-B Onestep [product website]. The court noted that the First Amendment [text; Cornell LII backgrounder] 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:
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. … It is one thing for a religious organization to be able to exercise the tenets of its faith … and another thing for a purely secular corporation to make the same claim.
The three-judge panel noted 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.
The 2-1 decision by the Third Circuit conflicts with a recent ruling [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit [official website], which held that for-profit company Hobby Lobby [corporate website] is entitled to bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) [text]. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) [text; JURIST backgrounder], private employers with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance that covers a range of birth control and reproductive health screening. Failure to do so can lead to financial penalties of up to $100 a day for each employee who is not provided with such coverage. Some 60 lawsuits are pending around the country, by profit-making businesses and various non-profit institutions, challenging this mandate on religious grounds. In his dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Kent Jordan argued that “the government takes us down a rabbit hole where religious rights are determined by the tax code, with non-profit corporations able to express religious sentiments while for-profit corporations and their owners are told that business is business and faith is irrelevant.” The decision, which created a direct split among federal appeals courts enhanced chances that the US Supreme Court [official website] will take on the issue.