Eden Foods v. Burwell, a sister case to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby could tear down one of the few remaining walls preventing employers from pleading “religious liberty” to challenge the rights of their workers. Indeed, if Eden Foods succeeds, it could eliminate the requirement that so-called religious liberty plaintiffs actually have any legitimate religious beliefs whatsoever.
To explain, the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby did more than simply allow religious business owners to ignore a federal rule requiring them to include contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. It tore down decades of law protecting workers from bosses who, in the words of one Supreme Court decision, would “impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.” Prior to Hobby Lobby, that same Court decision held that “[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.” Today, that is no longer the case.
Yet there are still some important limits on who may invoke a religious objection to following a particular law in federal court. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which is the law that was at issue in Hobby Lobby, provides that the federal government “may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only” in certain limited circumstances. This means that RFRA can only be used by plaintiffs who claim that they have a religious objection to following the law. As one federal appeals court explained, litigants may only invoke RFRA’s protections when a law burdens “a religious belief rather than a philosophy or way of life,” and when the plaintiff’s purported religious belief is “sincerely held.”
Which brings us to the Eden Foods case. Eden Foods is one of several for-profit companies which, like Hobby Lobby, brought a lawsuit claiming that they should be exempted from the requirement to provide birth control coverage because its owner and CEO Michael Potter “holds religious beliefs that prevent him from participating in, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting contraception, abortion, and abortifacients.” Last year, however, Potter gave a series of interviews to MSNBC’s Irin Carmon, who at the time was a reporter with Salon, that severely undercut his claim that he objects to the birth control rules for religious reasons.
“I’ve got more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills,” Potter told Carmon in one of his conversations with her. He added that “I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? That’s my issue, that’s what I object to, and that’s the beginning and end of the story.” In a subsequent interview, Carmon asked Potter whether there was a “particular belief” that led him to oppose the birth control rules. Potter replied that “there isn’t any one particular religious belief, Irin.”
Last October, in a decision denying Potter and Eden Foods the exemption they sought, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit called Potter out on his statements to Carmon. “Potter’s ‘deeply held religious beliefs,'” Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey wrote for the court, “more resembled a laissez-faire, anti-government screed.”
One day after Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ordered the Sixth Circuit to reconsider the Eden Foods case. This is a common practice when the justices upend longstanding law, and it should not necessarily be read as a sign that the Supreme Court expects Eden Foods and Potter to win their case.
Should Eden Foods prevail, however, it could shatter what may be the most fundamental assumption of any law protecting the free exercise of religion — religious exercise laws protect religious exercise, they don’t protect the right of an anti-government CEO to make a federal case out of every single thing the government does that he disagrees with.