RFRA Rights Revisited: Substantial Burdens, Judicial Competence, and the Religious Nonprofit Cases

56 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2016

Date Written: March 2, 2016


The most recent challenge to the free exercise of religion is here. And while it stems from the same legislation that prompted the action in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. — the contraception mandate under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “ACA”) — it raises unique and equally important issues: what constitutes a substantial burden on the exercise of religion and who gets to decide (the religious adherents or the courts). In Hobby Lobby, the government contended that for-profit corporations could not exercise religion and, consequently, could not avail themselves of the broad protection afforded free exercise under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In the seven religious nonprofit cases pending before the United States Supreme Court, the government acknowledges that RFRA applies to religious nonprofits but now alleges that the ACA does not substantially burden the free exercise of these religious organizations. In particular, the government argues that the accommodation to the contraception mandate (which permits religious nonprofits to avoid directly providing coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptives and sterilization procedures by giving notice to their insurance issuers or third party administrators that the religious organizations object to providing such coverage) does not burden, let alone substantially burden, the religious nonprofits’ exercise of religion.

To date, eight circuit courts of appeals have sided with the government, instructing the religious nonprofits that their sincerely held belief — that the accommodation makes them complicit in a grave moral wrong (i.e., the provision of contraceptives and abortifacients) — is incorrect because the ACA, not any actions by the religious nonprofits, is the legal cause of the insurance issuers’ and TPAs’ obligation to provide such coverage. Under the majority’s “Pontius Pilate” defense, the accommodation “washes the hands” of religious nonprofits, cleansing them of any legal or moral responsibility for providing the objectionable coverage. As a result, the religious nonprofits cannot meet their burden under RFRA because the accommodation does not substantially burden their exercise of religion. Only the Eighth Circuit has ruled for the religious nonprofits. The Supreme Court’s resolution of the circuit conflict, therefore, will impact the scope of free exercise protection far beyond the ACA context by deciding whether courts or religious practitioners have the right to determine when government-mandated actions actually contravene sincerely held religious beliefs.

This article contends that the circuit court majority is wrong. Contrary to the majority’s claim, Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs preclude courts from deciding whether the ACA (or any other statute) actually burdens a religious adherent’s sincerely held beliefs. Although, as Chief Justice Marshall famously declared, “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to declare what the law is,” courts lack the authority and competence to declare what the religious commitments of a faith are and when those commitments are violated. Under the Court’s free exercise precedents, courts can determine only whether the government puts a religious practitioner to the choice of engaging in conduct that violates her beliefs or of disobeying the government’s policy and facing “serious” consequences. Religious and philosophical questions regarding moral complicity are left to religious adherents, not the courts. As the Founders recognized, religious and moral questions transcend the legal, imposing a different — and higher — obligation on religious believers. For religious adherents, only God (through a religious authority determined in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs) can determine whether an action makes them complicit in sin. Consequently, as the Court explained in Hobby Lobby, “question[s]” about moral complicity are ones “that the federal courts have no business addressing.”

Suggested Citation

Gaylord, Scott W., RFRA Rights Revisited: Substantial Burdens, Judicial Competence, and the Religious Nonprofit Cases (March 2, 2016). Elon University Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-07, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2741136 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2741136

Scott W. Gaylord (Contact Author)

Elon University School of Law ( email )

201 N. Greene Street
Greensboro, NC 27401
United States

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