Legal minds great and not-so-great have and will continue to parse today's Supreme Court decision that closely-held corporations can't be required to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives over their owners' religious objections.
The justices' ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This law, enacted in 1993, essentially prohibits government actions that substantially burden the exercise of religion.
RFRA does provide an exception for actions that constitute the "least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest."
Hobby Lobby's owners, as well as the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. who also opposed the Affordable Care Act contraceptive requirement, have religious objections to abortion. They argued that according to their religious beliefs, four contraceptive methods induce abortion.
Another 5-to-4 decision: The High Court was split 5-to-4 on Burwell, once again underscoring how divided we are on yet another issue.
The majority for Hobby Lobby/Conestoga included Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion.
On the other side were Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Steven Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who elaborated on their objections in the official dissent.
I'm not here to get into the merits of the Affordable Care Act or women's medical choices or religion.
I am here, obviously, to talk about taxes. And the Burwell ruling does do that.
Substantial tax burden: Under the RFRA, the Supreme Court first had to determine whether the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate placed a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by requiring the companies to choose between "compromis[ing] their religious beliefs' and paying a heavy fee."
Evidence presented to the Court indicated that Hobby Lobby would face either "close to $475 million more in taxes every year" if they simply refused to provide coverage for the contraceptives at issue, or "roughly $26 million" annually if they eliminated health-insurance benefits for all employees.
Those tax ramifications convinced five members the High Court that, under RFRA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (of which Sylvia Burwell is Secretary and namesake for the legal challenge) contraceptive mandate was indeed a substantial burden on Hobby Lobby owners' exercise of religion.
"If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would," wrote Alito.
Opting out of government rules: In reading the many stories on the ruling, particularly the readers' comments sections -- I know, that's an online journey only for the strongest of heart -- there was a consistent stream of "if it's OK for Hobby Lobby, then why not for me?" posts, specifically when it comes to taxes.
The new is not good for those of you looking to lessen your Internal Revenue Service bills. The Supreme Court's decision in Burwell does not provide us -- companies or individuals -- a carte blanche excuse to opt out of things based on our personal or corporate beliefs.
I refer you back to RFRA's "serving a compelling government interest" phrase. The syllabus of the majority holding notes:
"This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should note be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice. United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, which upheld the payment of Social Security taxes despite an employer's religious objections is not analogous. It turned primarily on the special problems associated with a national system of taxation; and if Lee were a RFRA case, the fundamental point would still be that there is no less restrictive alternative to the categorical requirement to pay taxes. Here there is an alternative to the contraceptive mandate."
Alito elaborates on Lee in his majority opinion:
"HHS analogizes the contraceptive mandate to the requirement to pay Social Security taxes, which we upheld in Lee despite the religious objection of an employer, but these cases are quite different. Our holding in Lee turned primarily on the special problems associated with a national system of taxation. We noted that '[t]he obligation to pay the social security tax initially is not fundamentally different from the obligation to pay income taxes.' 455 U. S., at 260. Based on that premise, we explained that it was untenable to allow individuals to seek exemptions from taxes based on religious objections to particular Government expenditures: 'If, for example, a religious adherent believes war is a sin, and if a certain percentage of the federal budget can be identified as devoted to war-related activities, such individuals would have a similarly valid claim to be exempt from paying that percentage of the income tax.' Ibid. We observed that '[t]he tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.' Ibid.; see O Centro, 546 U. S., at 435.
Lee was a free-exercise, not a RFRA, case, but if the issue in Lee were analyzed under the RFRA framework, the fundamental point would be that there simply is no less restrictive alternative to the categorical requirement to pay taxes. Because of the enormous variety of government expenditures funded by tax dollars, allowing taxpayers to withhold a portion of their tax obligations on religious grounds would lead to chaos. … "
Alito also addresses this issue in answering Justine Ginsberg's dissenting opinion.
"As this description of our reasoning shows, our holding is very specific," wrote Alito. "We do not hold, as the principal dissent alleges, that for-profit corporations and other commercial enterprises can 'opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.'"
So all you folks who are religiously opposed to paying taxes, sorry. You're still stuck.
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