Hobby Lobby is decided, but the fights over religious accommodation are not

July 2

The Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby did not put an end to disputes over religious accommodation under the health-care law or more broadly. As Paul Horwitz noted in yesterday’s NYT, these are issues likely to inflame social and political passions for years to come. If, as Horwitz suggests, the 1990s consensus on religious toleration that produced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has dissolved at the same time that politically conscious consumerism has increased, we’ll be fighting over these issues for years to come.

The Hobby Lobby case itself did not even resolve the scope of religious accommodation that must be provided in the contraception mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (as I noted here).  The Court’s majority opinion noted that HHS had offered a less burdensome accommodation to some religious objectors, but stopped short of concluding that the accommodation itself satisfies RFRA — and litigation on that point is ongoing.  As noted here by Lyle Denniston, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit enjoined enforcement of the mandate, with the accommodation, against the Eternal Word Television Network, and the Supreme Court itself temporarily stayed enforcement of the mandate against Wheaton College, a religiously affiliated institution, over the dissent of Justices Breyer and Sotomayor.

The fact that HHS offered an accommodation to some religious groups was evidence that the contraception mandate necessarily failed the “least restrictive alternative” requirement under RFRA.   But this is not the same thing as saying that the accommodation is, itself, the least restrictive alternative.  As a practical matter, I would not be surprised if the accommodation satisfies some religious objectors, but it will not satisfy all of them, so the litigation will continue. Ed Whelan thinks those objecting to the accommodation have a strong case post-Hobby Lobby. Given the tone of Justice Kennedy’s concurrence, I am not so sure.  I am sure, however, that unless the administration comes up with a new accommodation, this matter will be resolved in the courts, and may even return to One First Street.

While we’re waiting for the courts to figure out what Hobby Lobby means for contraception coverage, the Supreme Court is already scheduled to revisit the underlying question of religious accommodation.  Among the cases on the docket for next term is Holt v. Hobbs, in which a Muslim prison inmate, Abdul Maalik Muhammad (nee Gregory Holt), is raising religious liberty objections to prison regulations requiring him to shave his beard. The prison requires him to shave, but he claims his religion requires him to keep a beard, so he’s asking to be allowed to have one up to a half-inch long. Half-inch beards are allowed in 43 other states, his attorneys note, suggesting the state’s regulation is not necessary to satisfy a compelling interest. (More background on the case here.)

Although this case arises under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), rather than RFRA, the underlying legal standard is the same.  The case is also likely to turn on a similar question.  Although the state’s prison regulations require inmates to shave, it allows exemptions for those with medical conditions. So all Muhammad is asking for is the same accommodation the government already offers others.  Interestingly, the federal government has taken Muhammad’s side, arguing the state must explain why an accommodation offered to some cannot be offered to other religious objectors (a point noted by Justice Alito in his Hobby Lobby opinion in FN 41). So while Hobby Lobby is past, the fights over religious accommodation will continue on.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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Orin Kerr | July 2