After the 2014 SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby, in which a closely-held for-profit employer won the argument that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected it against enforcement of the government’s contraceptives coverage mandate, all eyes have been on what SCOTUS would do in response to a challenge to the very same accommodation it toyed with as a less restrictive alternative in that case. The Court agreed to hear a consolidated set of challenges to the accommodation brought by several religious non-profit employers who seek outright exemption from the mandate (under the case name Zubik et al.) – but then Justice Scalia passed away, leaving the Court with the unpalatable prospect of a 4-4 decision.
SCOTUS has pulled a few tricks out of its hat to avoid that possibility. First, it surprised us by seeking supplemental briefs on a possible compromise solution, which would ostensibly allow women to access contraceptives (as the government desires) while not burdening the religious employers (as they desire). The parties basically responded, as politely as would be expected, that some compromise was indeed possible – but not on terms the other could or would actually accept. Nonetheless, today, SCOTUS surprised us again – seeing enough glimmer of a possible compromise to decline to decide the cases on the merits, instead returning them to the lower courts to work something out.
So what does that mean? In my view, count it as a win for the government. Eight out of nine circuit courts ruled in the government’s favor below, holding that the accommodation it had already offered did not substantially burden employers’ religious beliefs – which means that RFRA’s further protection, demanding a compelling government interest satisfied in the least restrictive way, does not even get triggered. These courts have no reason to change that determination now. Even if there is a compromise that would be less burdensome on religious employers (which I don’t think there is), such a compromise is not required under RFRA unless there is a substantial burden. And SCOTUS hasn’t said there is.
What we have here is, ironically, precisely the same result we’d have had if SCOTUS had issued a 4-4 decision. The lower court opinions will almost certainly stand, and we’ll likely still have a bit of a circuit split. So now, we wait on a new president. The Donald would presumably destroy the ACA/mandate entirely, whereas Hillary would hopefully be able to deliver a ninth justice that will recognize RFRA’s reasonable limits. Religious freedom is critically important, but so too is accepting the government’s dramatic efforts to be accommodating, short of letting every religious believer be an island unto himself.