"For-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise." With this sentence, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit panel in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius voted 2-1 to uphold the denial of a preliminary injunction that would have spared Pennsylvania cabinet-maker Conestoga Wood from complying with the women's preventative care provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA). All of Conestoga's voting shares are owned by the Hahn family, Mennonites who firmly object to the use of certain post-fertilization contraceptives. The Hahns argued that portions of the ACA requiring group health insurance plans to cover these contraceptives violated Conestoga's rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment's free exercise clause.
The Third Circuit, however, reasoned that corporations cannot practice religion in the same way that natural persons can, making further inquiry into the merits of the Hahns' claim unnecessary. By denying Conestoga relief under the RFRA and the free exercise clause, the Third Circuitsplit directly with the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit's opinion in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius and sustained a contentious debate — one likely headed to the US Supreme Court — over which constitutional rights may legitimately be attributed to corporations.
The Hahns presented two theories under which the court could find corporations like Conestoga capable of exercising religion and, thus, able to escape the preventative care mandate. First, the Hahns attempted to analogize to the recent US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that government restrictions on corporate political expenditures violated the First Amendment'sfree speech clause by effectively suppressing political speech. Second, the Hanhs suggested that their personal religious beliefs could indirectly "pass through" to Conestoga. The Third Circuit rightly rejected both of these contentions.
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