Wednesday, September 18, 2013
The Sixth Circuit's succinct and unanimous opinion in Autocam Corporation v. Sebelius sided with the Third Circuit's July opinion in Conestoga Wood Specialties and against the en banc Tenth Circuit's June majority opinion in Hobby Lobby on the issue of whether a for-profit secular business has a free exercise of religion right (as a person) under RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There is some intertwining of the First Amendment free exercise of religion claim, but the Autocam decision rests on RFRA.
Autocam, like Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby, and its owners, argue that the regulations under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (“ACA”) requiring employers cover contraceptive methods for their employees - - - often called the contraceptive mandate - - - infringes on their religious rights. Autocam, like the others, is a large corporation. And a quick look at Autocam's "mission" on its website indicates no expression of a religious purpose, but only providing superior products.
The Sixth Circuit interestingly found that while Autocam as a corporation had standing to assert its claims, the Kennedy family as members (owners?) of a "closely held corporation" did not have shareholder standing: "Generally, shareholders of a corporation cannot bring claims intended to redress injuries to a corporation, even when the corporation is closely held." The Kennedys argued that this rule should not apply in RFRA claims, but the court found nothing in RFRA to support their view. Further, the court rejected their claims they were individually harmed or that a "pass through" theory could be applied.
As to the merits of the corporation's assertion of personhood under RFRA, the court found that RFRA did not support such an interpretation, and moreover, "Reading the term “person” in the manner suggested by Autocam would lead to a significant expansion of the scope of the rights the Free Exercise Clause" protected prior to Employment Division v. Smith and the enactment of RFRA.
By affirming the denial of the preliminary injunction by the district judge, the Sixth Circuit panel has entered the fray of a circuit split on the issue. With its unamious opinion, it does tilt the "count" toward a nonrecognition of religious rights of secular for proft corporations (recall that the en banc Tenth Circuit opinion was closely divided and the Third Circuit panel opinion was also split; additionally earlier this month a senior district judge in the Tenth Circuit applied applied Hobby Lobby to a for-profit nursing home chain.) However, the Sixth Circuit opinion adds little new to the analysis of this issue increasingly ripe for Supreme Court review.