Walsh on the Third Circuit’s Contraception Mandate Decision

Center for Law and Religion friend Kevin Walsh has a thoughtful and informative post about the Third Circuit’s recent decision in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. US Department of Health and Human Services, which I noted and discussed here. One thing that Kevin’s post makes me think is that given the nature of the legislative purpose for enacting RFRA, it is probable that the meaning of “exercise” was intended to be close to the constitutional meaning (pre-Smith). It would have been useful to have more statutory analysis of this type from the Third Circuit. From Kevin’s post:

Consider the facts of Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), one of the two cases singled out in RFRA. The exercise of religion in that case was Adele Sherbert’s religion-based refusal to work on Saturday. See id. at 403 (describing the relevant conduct as “appellant’s conscientious objection to Saturday work”).

A corporation can engage in this kind of “exercise of religion” if a corporation can refuse, for religious reasons, to do something otherwise required by law. And it plainly can. Suppose a federal law requiring fast-food restaurants located near interstate highways to be open seven days a week. Chick-fil-A’s religion-based refusal to operate on Sundays in violation of this law would surely be an “exercise of religion” akin to Ms. Sherbert’s refusal to work on Saturdays.

The profit-making character of the corporation does not change the analysis of whether the corporation can make a religion-based decision. Chick-fil-A is a profit-making business. Yet it foregoes the profits it would otherwise make through Sunday operation because its religion-based corporate policy controls the manner in which it seeks to make a profit. Similarly, Ms. Sherbert was working for money (and later seeking unemployment benefits). Yet her religious obligation not to work on Saturday conditioned the manner in which she could go about earning money.

The panel majority opinion simply does not address this line of argument. One way in which its failure to address RFRA independently may have contributed to this failure to analyze what counts as a protected “exercise of religion” emerges from a word search for that phrase. It does not appear until page 28, after the majority has already concluded its Free Exercise analysis. In the course of its Free Exercise analysis, the Third Circuit panel majority does not ask whether a corporation can engage in the “exercise of religion” (RFRA’s words), but rather whether corporations can “engage in religious exercise” [11] or whether corporations can “exercise religion” [15]. The wording shift is subtle and almost certainly unintentional, but it nevertheless tends to lead analysis in the wrong direction. For the panel majority’s rephrasing suggests asking whether a corporation can engage in religious exercises like prayer, worship, participation in sacraments, and so on. But that is not what the governing law requires.

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