The Best Legal Argument For Protection of For-Profits Under RFRA

Several people have asked me about the issue of the protection of for-profit corporations in the ongoing HHS contraceptives mandate controversy.  Generally, skeptics of such protection are apt to jump immediately to policy arguments — for example, “doesn’t giving religious liberty protection to for-profits threaten the rule of law?”

Set those policy arguments, which are certainly worth taking seriously, aside for the moment.  Instead, focus strictly on the legal arguments under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The very best legal argument that I have seen so far that RFRA does, indeed, protect for-profit corporations is set out in this amicus brief filed on behalf of several US Senators in the Hobby Lobby litigation, authored in part by Kevin Walsh (Richmond), and which I was fortunate to have an early look at.  Whatever policy concerns one might have, it seems to me that the Administration’s categorical exclusion of for-profits in its current proposed rule, and its reliance on certain definitions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, just is not going to fly in the RFRA context.

Here is one important part of the brief (at 17-18):

In formulating RFRA, Congress heard testimony about the need for greater protection for the free exercise of religion by organizations as well as individuals . . . .  And Congress did not limit RFRA’s protections to individuals. Rather, Congress provided that “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a), employing a term that ordinarily encompasses “corporations, companies, associations, firms,  partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” 1 U.S.C. § 1.

Rather than reach the obviously incorrect conclusion that RFRA does not extend to corporations at all, the district court created an exception from RFRA’s coverage for “secular, for-profit corporations,” incorrectly concluding that such corporations “are not ‘persons’ for purposes of the RFRA.” Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, 870 F.Supp.2d 1278, 1288, 1291-92 (W.D. Okla. 2012). The district court reasoned that “[g]eneral business corporations do not, separate and apart from the actions or belief systems of their individual owners or employees, exercise religion.” Id. at 1291. But the same can be said of corporations that unquestionably are “persons” under RFRA, such as hospitals, universities, and religious orders.

In attempting to justify their failure to respect religious objections to the HHS mandate asserted by for-profit corporations, Defendants have observed that Congress has sometimes distinguished between nonprofit religious organizations and for-profit secular organizations. 78 Fed. Reg. 8456, 8462 (Feb. 6, 2013) (discussing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). This demonstrates that Congress can distinguish between for-profit and nonprofit employers when it wishes to do so. But Congress made no such distinction in RFRA, which applies broadly and generally, subject only to displacement by later enactments that relax its reach in specific areas. Congress plainly wrote RFRA to include corporations, and neither RFRA nor the PPACA excludes for-profit corporations.

Mooney on the Hajj and Reasonable Accommodation Under Title VII

Matthew P. Mooney (Student at Duke U. School of Law) has posted Between a Stone and a Hard Place: How the Hajj Can Restore the Spirit of Reasonable Accommodation to Title VII. The abstract follows.

Although section 701(j) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that employers reasonably accommodate their employees’ religious practices and beliefs, many commentators acknowledge that the spirit of reasonable accommodation has not been realized because courts have drastically limited the scope of employers’ duty. This may be especially true for Muslims, who, according to a 2012 study, are roughly half as likely to prevail in free-exercise and religious-accommodation lawsuits as are non-Muslim claimants. One of the central tenets of Islam, the hajj, poses significant challenges for Muslim employees seeking accommodation under Title VII. Because accommodating the hajj will almost always impose more than a de minimis cost on employers, a court is unlikely to find that Title VII requires employers to accommodate a Muslim employee’s decision to complete the pilgrimage.

This Note attempts to articulate a new method for expanding Title VII’s protection of employees’ religious beliefs and practices. Specifically, this Note argues that increased involvement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice in hajj-accommodation cases offers a promising approach to developing a more balanced accommodation doctrine, or at least to  realigning the scales so that they are not tilted so heavily in favor of employers. Despite clear precedent limiting an employer’s duty to accommodate, increased intervention by the federal government in Title VII hajj-accommodation cases has the potential to shift the conception of reasonable accommodation. Though the government must pick and choose the cases in which to intervene, hajj-accommodation cases present an opportunity to further the dual purposes of the government’s Title VII enforcement authority to implement the public interest as well as to bring about more effective enforcement of private rights. Intervention can restore the spirit of accommodation to section 701(j) and give employers more of an incentive to accommodate their employees’ religious obligations.

Clark on What Legal Teachers Can Learn From Preachers

Sherman J. Clark (U. of Mich. Law School) has posted To Teach and Persuade. The abstract follows.

Legal speech and religious speech inevitably do some of the same work. Both are vehicles through which we both talk about and become the kind of people we are. Granted, those of us who teach and argue about the law do not often conceive of our work in this way. That is part of what I hope to begin to remedy in this essay. While the construction of character is a more obvious aspect of religious than legal thought, law, including legal argument, can be constitutive in similar ways. If so–if our ways of talking about the law serve some of the same ends as do our ways of talking about religion–then we may be able to learn how better to talk about the law by thinking about how we talk about religion. I do not mean things like paragraph structure or argument organization or the proper use of headings, but rather something more subtle and more fundamental. One way to put it is this: legal speech can learn from religious speech how to be less small, and perhaps more ennobling.
More specifically, those of us who speak and teach about the law may be able to learn from religious ways of speaking and preaching how better to Read more