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Third Circuit Court of Appeals Says Conestoga Wood Specialties Must Comply with Contraceptive Coverage Benefit

Conestoga Wood Specialties is one of the almost 30 plus companies challenging the contraceptive coverage benefit. Conestoga has been arguing that, as a secular, for-profit corporation, it can exercise religious beliefs and that it should be allowed to impose those religious beliefs and the beliefs of its owners on its employees. Today, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said, quite simply, “no way!”  

The court’s decision makes three important points: (1) Conestoga, as a for-profit, secular corporation, cannot exercise religious beliefs; (2) the Hahns, Conestoga’s owners, cannot impose their religious beliefs on their employees through their company; and (3) the decision does not disrespect the Hahns’ religious objections to contraception.

First, the court said upfront that Conestoga, as a “for-profit, secular corporation[] cannot engage in religious exercise.” “In fact,” the court continued, “we are not aware of any case preceding the commencement of litigation about the [contraceptive coverage benefit], in which a for-profit, secular corporation was itself found to have free exercise rights.” That’s because there is none. For-profit, secular corporations are not churches or religious entities, and are certainly not individuals that may express religious belief.

Second, the court acknowledged that while the company’s owners, the Hahns, may have religious beliefs, they cannot impose those beliefs on their workers through their company. The court recognized, “Since Conestoga is distinct from the Hahns, the [contraceptive coverage benefit] does not actually require the Hahns to do anything. All responsibility for complying with the [contraceptive coverage benefit] falls on Conestoga.” And, again: back to (1): complying with the contraceptive coverage benefit does not interfere with Conestoga’s religious exercise because Conestoga itself cannot have religious beliefs.

Finally, the court noted: “[O]ur decision here is in no way intended to marginalize the Hahns’ commitment to [their] faith . . . . We simply conclude that the law has long recognized the distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself.” The acknowledgement by the court here is true—the court’s decision says nothing about the Hahns’ ability to profess their religious beliefs as individuals. It simply reaffirms the idea that the Hahns cannot impose their religious beliefs on their workers. As the court points out, “[a] holding to the contrary—that a for-profit corporation can engage in religious exercise—would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.”

So, Conestoga cannot get out of complying with the contraceptive coverage benefit and must provide its workers with health insurance that includes coverage for birth control. Great news to hear on a Friday—looking forward to more decisions like this one!