While the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United extended First Amendment protections to corporations’ freedom of speech, it doesn’t extend the right to freely practice religion to private companies, a federal judge ruled in a case of first impression challenging parts of Obamacare.
U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied a motion for preliminary injunction filed by a Mennonite family in East Earl, Pa., that runs a cabinetry company, holding that the right to freely practice religion is a wholly personal one that can’t be conferred to a privately held company, regardless of the religious practices of its owners.
Referring to the First Amendment’s rights to free speech and religion, Goldberg said in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, “Although they reside within the same constitutional amendment, these two provisions have vastly different purposes and precedents, and we decline to make the significant leap plaintiffs ask of us without clear guidance from Congress or the Supreme Court.”
The Hahn family, which owns Conestoga Wood Specialties, plans to appeal the decision this week, said their lawyer, Charles Proctor III.
The Hahns argued that because of their deeply held religious belief that it is a sin to abort a fertilized egg, the women’s preventive health care regulations included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires their company to provide insurance coverage to its employees that includes women’s contraception, violate the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
Goldberg wasn’t convinced by the plaintiffs’ argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is analogous to the instant case.
“Citizens United built upon the long-accepted principle that corporations have free speech rights protected by the Constitution,” Goldberg said. “However, we find no such historical support for the proposition that a secular, for-profit corporation possesses the right to free exercise of religion.”
The “nature, history and purpose” of the freedom to practice religion clause is purely personal, Goldberg concluded.
Similarly, he was not convinced by the Hahns’ argument that they act as the alter-ego for the company, thereby conferring their right to the free practice of religion to their business.
Goldberg noted that the purpose of incorporation is to create a legal entity distinct from those who start it.
“It would be entirely inconsistent to allow the Hahns to enjoy the benefits of incorporation, while simultaneously piercing the corporate veil for the limited purpose of challenging these regulations,” Goldberg said.
Ruling on the RFRA claims, Goldberg found that the Hahns hadn’t proved that they would be substantially burdened by the law.
“If every plaintiff were permitted to unilaterally determine that a law burdened their religious beliefs, and courts were required to assume that such burden was substantial, simply because the plaintiff claimed that it was the case, then the standard expressed by Congress under the RFRA would convert to an ‘any burden’ standard,” he said.
Goldberg explained that the series of events that would have to take place before a fertilized egg is aborted is too remote from the insurance provided by the Hahns’ company to pose a burden on them.
“These events include: the payment for insurance to a group health insurance plan that will cover contraceptive services (and a wide range of other health care services); the abortifacients must be made available to Conestoga employees through a pharmacy or other health care facility; and a decision must be made by a Conestoga employee and her doctor, who may or may not choose to avail themselves to these services,” he said.
Brigitte Amiri of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, which filed an amicus brief advocating against the injunction, said she saw Goldberg’s ruling on the RFRA claims as significant.
“This decision reaffirms the idea that taking a job isn’t the same as joining a church,” Amiri said.
(Copies of the 34-page opinion in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, PICS No. 13-0124, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •