Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience

Autocam Corporation v. Burwell (2014)

  • May 18 2018

Oral Argument Currently Unavailable


Whether the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with the religious practices of owners of privately owned, for-profit companies. Specifically, whether companies must provide employees with health coverage that covers abortions even if doing so violates the owners’ religious convictions.


Autocam Corporation and Autocam Medical were Michigan-based, for-profit companies owned and managed by plaintiff John Kennedy and his family. The companies employed 661 workers and provided medical insurance for all full-time staff. The Kennedy family were Catholics, and it was against their religious practice to have an abortion or fund the abortion of another. The coverage plan for their companies did not cover abortifacients. The Affordable Care Act ACA signed by President Obama in 2010, however, required employers to provide preventative health care to women, including abortifacients.

In response to the ACA, the Autocam companies filed suit against the federal government. They claimed that the ACA violated the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 RFRA, and the Administrative Procedures Act APA. The contraceptive coverage requirement “effectively strip[ped] … their ability to provide employee benefits in a manner that is consistent with their sincerely held religious convictions.” If they chose to abstain from providing health coverage they would owe 19 million dollars per year in fines. Thus, they argued, they were forced to either violate their religious beliefs or leave the market place.

The Court Below

The United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan was the first to hear the case. The court ruled in favor of the government, denying Autocam a preliminary injunction. See opinion below:

Autocam Corporation v. Sebelius, 1:12-CV-1096 W.D. Mich., 2012

Autocam Appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court upheld the decision of the court below, holding that for-profit companies are not protected as “persons” under the First Amendment. See opinion below:

Autocam Corporation v. Sebelius, 730 F.3d 618 6th Cir., 2013

Autocam appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court granted certiorari. The Court remanded the case back to the Sixth Circuit after deciding in favor of corporations in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. 2014. Thus the Court ultimately ruled in favor of Autocam. See opinion below:

Autocam Corporation v. Burwell, 134 S.Ct. 2901 2014

Question before the Court

The questions before the 6th Circuit included: 1 Whether Autocam has Article III standing to sue to assert RFRA claims due to requirements that Autocam’s insurance provide all approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. Whether the Kennedy’s have the same standing. 2 Whether Autocam can be granted preliminary injunction as a “person whose religious exercise has been burdened.” 

CCJ filed an amicus curiae in support of Autocam Corporation


The Court should grant review. Denying religious liberty to corporations would negatively affect thousands of U.S. companies and millions of American citizens. To this point in history corporations have operated under the protection of the Free Exercise Clause, allowing their owners to live out their faith in the marketplace. Individuals bring their religious values with them to their business operations because they believe there is no way to separate the two. The Founders understood that religion is a communal activity that affects the way individuals live their public lives, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld these views. The decision of the court below goes against the “historical function” of the Exercise Clause and gives unprecedented power to administrative agencies to decide which citizens the First Amendment protects. This is a dangerous precedent that the Court should not uphold.

Today thousands of individuals and families operate their businesses in accordance with their faith. At the time of this case over 200 plaintiffs including 39 for-profit businesses were challenging the government in 74 separate suits. Companies such as Walmart, Forever 21, and Hobby Lobby were founded by deeply religious individuals who sought to live out their faith through their businesses. For example, the for-profit restaurant chain Chick-fil-A has remained closed on Sundays since its founding due to the religious beliefs of its founder, Truett Cathy. Cathy stated that the “practice of closing his restaurants on Sunday is unique to the restaurant business and a testament to his faith in God.” The company Interstate Batteries has a similar mission statement, namely, “to glorify God as [they] supply [their] customers worldwide.” These are just a few examples of the thousands of companies that incorporate their faith into their business.

The Founders understood religion to extend beyond houses of worship. They encouraged group prayer and action outside of churches. President Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789, as a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.” That same year Congress authorized paid chaplains to open legislative sessions. Similarly, state constitutions in the 1770s and 1780s guaranteed religious liberty in both the private and public sphere. The Founders acted in such a way because they understood that religion shapes the citizens’ entire ways of life.

Throughout history, the Supreme Court has upheld the Founders’ view of religion, and civil society has reflected that view. In 1952, the Court noted in Zorach v. Clauson, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” and in 2012 the Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, “First Amendment protection extends to corporations.” For this reason it has established that private organizations, including corporations, are protected by the First Amendment and have the right to practice religion. Organizations such as The High Calling and Legatus exist for the sole purpose of promoting the practice of religion within corporations. Furthermore, since 1953, the president and members of Congress have partaken in a national prayer breakfast, and each president since Dwight Eisenhower has spoken about how his faith informs the way he carries out his duties. People of faith have never merely left their faith at the worship-house door; they have lived out their religion in their daily civic life.

The ACA threatens public practice of religion by giving complete discretion to the administrative agencies to decide which organizations are protected by the First Amendment and which are not. The Court warned of such administrative discretion in City of Chicago v. Morales 1999. The exercise of discretion to exempt some, but not all, objectors from the ACA’s requirement allows the agency to participate in anti-religious targeting. In this case, the administrative agency has decided that a family loses its religious liberty when it forms a closely held, family-owned corporation. The Court should review whether Congress intended to give such discretion to HHS to interpret the First Amendment. Neither the Founders nor the current Congress intended for unelected bureaucratic officials to have the authority to interpret the Constitution on such a broad scale.

Final Outcome

After ruling in favor of private corporations in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. the Supreme Court remanded this case back down to the Sixth Circuit Court. The court ruled in favor of Autocam based on the Supreme Court decision. The decision in Hobby Lobby held that corporations receive the same First Amendment protections as persons and that to enforce the ACA’s regulation meant to force business owners to violate their religious beliefs or to leave the market place. In doing so the decision aligned with CCJ’s argument and upheld the public practice of religion.