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Shall Businesses Profit if Their Owners Lose Their Souls? Examining Whether Closely Held Corporations May Seek Exemptions from the Contraceptive Mandate

50 Pages Posted: 27 Nov 2013 Last revised: 21 Feb 2014

Christopher S. Ross

Fordham University

Date Written: February 18, 2014

Abstract

May for-profit, secular corporations claim the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?

This question is central to numerous lawsuits against the federal government in which business owners argue that certain regulations under the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act substantially burden the exercise of their religion. This Note examines the threshold hurdle that for-profit business owners must clear to successfully state a claim under RFRA: the question of whether the businesses are “persons” the statute protects. This is an issue of first impression for the Supreme Court, and it has split the circuit courts.

This Note begins by providing an overview of Free Exercise jurisprudence, with a focus on the ebbs and flows of the Supreme Court’s exemption doctrine, and an introduction to RFRA. It then discusses the laws, regulations, and religious objections that form the basis of the current disputes and introduces the conflict among circuit courts.

This Note then evaluates the circuit court opinions and explains that resolution of this conflict is a matter of statutory interpretation. An assessment of RFRA’s text and the context in which Congress enacted the statute reveals that nothing precludes corporations from RFRA claims. In addition, this Note examines legislative history that supports application of the Dictionary Act, which explains that the word “person” in federal statutes includes corporations. This Note ultimately concludes that RFRA allows corporations to seek exemptions under RFRA. However, because the plaintiffs in the current litigation are closely held corporations, this Note also cautions courts against holdings that determine the contours of corporate RFRA claims in one fell swoop. Rather, RFRA requires courts to craft a jurisprudence and ascertain the proper contours of the law as applied to different corporate forms.

Keywords: RFRA, Religious Freedom, Free Exercise, First Amendment, Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood

Suggested Citation

Ross, Christopher S., Shall Businesses Profit if Their Owners Lose Their Souls? Examining Whether Closely Held Corporations May Seek Exemptions from the Contraceptive Mandate (February 18, 2014). 82 Fordham L. Rev. 1951 (2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2358271 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2358271

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