Now, on to the opinions in the case. Since the dissenting opinion is largely in response to the majority opinion, I will generally give the majority arguments first, followed by the dissenting arguments.
This decision essentially centers on four questions:
1 - It is long established that “persons” are protected in the free exercise of religion. Does a for-profit corporation qualify as a “person”?
2 - Does the coverage requirement “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion?
3 - Is the requirement in the furtherance of a “compelling government interest”?
4 - If so, is the requirement the “least restrictive means” of furthering this interest?
Taking the questions one at a time:
Does a for-profit corporation qualify as a “person”?
The government case was that for-profit corporations pursue profit, not religion. The owners could not sue because the act of incorporation separates the owners from the company, and the regulations apply only to the corporations, not to the owners. Of the four lower court decisions prior to these cases reaching the Supreme Court, three took the approach that while the requirement may be contrary to the religion of the owners, it does not violate the free exercise of their religion, only the practices of a non-person corporation. Since the owners were persons and the corporations not, there was no free exercise claim. The regulations provide exemptions for religious non-profits which exist to further religious values, rather than make money, and these exemptions extend to them as religious organizations, not as “persons”.
The Dictionary Act defines “persons” as including “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals”. The majority opinion states that “no known understanding of the term “person” includes some but not all corporations”, and thus the exception for religious corporations is a useless distinction. So, for-profit corporations are “persons”. The dissenting opinion notes that the extending of protections to religious corporations not extended to for-profit corporations has a long history of case law behind it, citing several Supreme Court decisions.
The majority opinion also stated that corporations pursue more than profit, including in some cases the exercise of religion. The “purpose of extending rights to corporations is to protect the rights of people associated with the corporations, including shareholders, officers, and employees”, and Congress intended in their passing of RFRA that corporations have these rights. The language in RFRA and RLUIPA does not limit the religious rights involved, so those rights are therefore not limited by the statutes.
Please note that this argument does not limit the definition of “persons” to include only closely-held corporations. The opinion states that it is “unlikely” that a widely-held corporation would “often assert RFRA claims”, and “numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring”. So, the opinion leaves open the possibility of, say, General Electric making the same claim as Hobby Lobby, but says it probably won’t happen. Also, the corporation’s “beliefs” need not be unanimous on the part of the owners; they only need follow state laws in asserting them. Proxy votes may occur in the near future. Maybe Wal Mart?
The dissenting opinion, of course, dissents. Included in the very first sentence of the Dictionary Act is the phrase “unless the context indicates otherwise”. There being no prior case law stating that for-profit corporations could exercise free exercise of religion, which is a “characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities”, the context of RFRA and RLUIPA, in which for-profit corporations were not mentioned in the debate or text, follows that precedent and excludes them. In fact, in the concurring opinion in the Citizens United case it was stated that such corporations “have no conscience, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires”, which certainly sounds like a statement that they cannot hold religious beliefs.
The majority opinion, noting that sole proprietors can exercise religion through their business activities and are out to make a profit, asked why if “a sole proprietorship that seeks to make a profit may assert a free exercise claim, [Hobby Lobby and Conestoga] can’t ... do the same?”. This splits the term “for-profit corporation” into two parts, and addresses the first part. If for-profit corporations cannot claim free exercise rights, it must be either because they are for-profit or because they are corporations, and this argues that it can’t be because of the profit motive. The fact that non-profit religious corporations are excluded from the requirement proves that it also can’t be because of incorporation.
The dissenting opinion noted that in the case of a sole proprietorship, the business and the owner are “one and the same”, but a corporation exists to separate the owner(s) from the business. Noting that incorporation prevents an owner from being liable for the obligations of the corporation, it asks why the separation should apply “only when it serves the interest of those who control the corporation”. It also noted that the extension of protections to religious non-profit corporations that are not extended to for-profit corporations has a long case law history as noted above, and the debates on and texts of RFRA and RLUIPA provide absolutely no evidence that either was meant to overturn that practice. The majority decision states that the texts (not referring to the legislative history) give no reason to believe they did not mean to do so.
I started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff. Bob Dylan, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
How on earth did I get 9 QPs?