May for–profit, secular corporations claim the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?
This question is central to numerous lawsuits against the federal government in which business owners argue that certain regulations under the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act substantially burden the exercise of their religion. This Note examines the threshold hurdle that for–profit business owners must clear to successfully state a claim under RFRA: the question of whether the businesses are “persons” the statute protects. This is an issue of first impression for the U.S. Supreme Court, and it has split the circuit courts of appeal.
First, this Note provides an overview of free exercise jurisprudence, with a focus on the ebbs and flows of the Supreme Court’s exemption doctrine. This overview includes a discussion of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the laws, regulations, and religious objections that form the basis of the current disputes. Second, this Note introduces the conflict among circuit courts and their varying interpretations of whether for–profit corporations are “persons” under RFRA. Third, this Note assesses this conflict by examining RFRA’s text and the context in which Congress enacted the statute. Nothing within this context precludes corporations from stating RFRA claims. In addition, this Note examines legislative history that supports application of the Dictionary Act, which explains that the word “person” in federal statutes includes corporations. This Note ultimately concludes that RFRA does indeed grant corporations the ability to seek exemptions, but that the statute will require courts to undertake the task of ascertaining the proper contours of the law as applied to different corporate forms.