On Friday, a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in an order joined by two conservative Republican appointees, temporarily immunized a company from the Obama Administration’s rules guaranteeing that employer-provided health plans cover birth control. Judge Ilana Rovner, a George H.W. Bush appointee, dissented.
The order is brief, and it mostly deals with the most significant issue in this case in just a single paragraph — holding that a for-profit corporate employer can claim that its religious liberties were somehow violated:
[T]he government’s primary argument is that because K & L Contractors is a secular, for‐profit enterprise, no rights under RFRA are implicated at all. This ignores that Cyril and Jane Korte are also plaintiffs. Together they own nearly 88% of K & L Contractors. It is a family‐run business, and they manage the company in accordance with their religious beliefs. This includes the health plan that the company sponsors and funds for the benefit of its nonunion workforce. That the Kortes operate their business in the corporate form is not dispositive of their claim. See generally Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010). The contraception mandate applies to K & L Contractors as an employer of more than 50 employees, and the Kortes would have to violate their religious beliefs to operate their company in compliance with it.
As a matter of current law, this decision is wrong. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” Lee established — with no justice in dissent — that religious liberty does not allow an employer to “impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees,” such as by forcing employees to give up their own rights because of the employer’s objections to birth control.
Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit’s citation to Citizens United is an ominous sign. Lee was decided at a time when the Court understood that corporations should not be allowed to buy and sell elections. That time has passed, and the precedents protecting against corporate election-buying were overruled in Citizens United. It is not difficult to imagine the same five justices who tossed out longstanding precedent in Citizens United doing the same in a case involving whether employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees.
It is likely that we will know soon whether those five justices are prepared to do so. The Seventh Circuit’s decision is at odds with a decision out of the Tenth Circuit, and the Supreme Court typically agrees to hear cases where two federal appeals courts disagree.