In a startlingly broad opinion, the Court agreed; Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the five conservatives, said that the company has a religious right not to “perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act [under its belief system] by another.” If employees independently choose to use their insurance for contraception, without the employers’ knowledge or approval, that was a still “substantial burden” on their employers’ rights, because the employers found that conduct immoral.
The nub of the Hobby Lobby opinion was that the government must offer for-profit objectors the same accommodation it had already offered religious nonprofits. In his Hobby Lobby opinion, Alito wrote that offering for-profits the nonprofit exemption would be “less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs.”
Health-insurance regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the act already contained two provisions designed to protect religious organizations. First, houses of worship and their “auxiliaries” need not provide contraceptive coverage to their employees at all; second, nonprofits that aren’t houses of worship but have a religious identity (such as hospitals, social-service organizations, and other charities) can “opt out” of handling and paying for the coverage. If they do, the commercial insurer or plan administrator running the plan must provide the coverage without cost to the employees or the employer. To further disassociate the employer from the coverage, the administrator must notify the employees of the coverage; the employer does not.
But religious objectors had never said they would accept even that “opt out” provision. At oral argument in Hobby Lobby, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked superlawyer Paul Clement, “you’re saying [Hobby Lobby] would claim an exemption?” Clement would not answer: “We haven’t had to decide what kind of objection, if any, we would make to that.” Alito’s opinion was equally coy. The government must make the offer, he suggested; but “[w]e do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.”
At first, HHS required objecting nonprofits to use a government “opt-out” form. Some nonprofits objected to cooperating even this much. HHS then said that they could use any means they choose to notify the government that they want nothing to do with contraceptive coverage.
In the cases granted Friday, the plaintiffs are religious nonprofits who claim that even objecting to the coverage—even without filling out the form—violates their free-exercise rights. In his petition for certiorari on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Clement writes that the accommodation requires the objecting organization to change its health plan—and thus is “designed to force a religious employer to allow its own plan to be used to facilitate access to the very contraceptive coverage that it finds religiously objectionable.”