It has long been recognized in the United States that an individual can, under certain circumstances, claim religious exemptions to certain laws because of a religious objection. This basic principle, based on the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, has also been extended to religious non-profit organizations, like churches and schools or charities run by religious institutions. However, in recent years a new question has come up: can a for-profit company claim a religious objection to a law, even when they’re not officially recognized as a religious organization?
In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., this question went to the Supreme Court, and in a 5-4 decision, they decided that yes, a for-profit corporation can sometimes claim a religious exemption to a statute or regulation. However, the corporation must be “closely held,” a term that is vaguely defined within the Hobby Lobby decision itself, and it is based on an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), not on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. As such, it isn’t entirely clear which for-profit corporations might be able to claim this exemption, or what laws the exemption might reasonably apply to.
Additionally, because the decision was rooted in an interpretation of the RFRA, which is a statute, it is entirely possible for Congress to later change the law so the RFRA no longer protects these closely held for-profit corporations. This, combined with the ambiguity of the language in the Hobby Lobby decision, means that the future of this exemption is uncertain. However, at the very least, it doesn’t seem that the courts are willing to acknowledge that a for-profit corporation might have rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the US Constitution, at least for now.
If you need any help starting your church or religious organization, or have questions about applying for tax-exempt status, you’ll need an attorney who thoroughly understands the religious organization law and its tax implications. The non-profit law attorneys at Wingate, Kearney, & Cullen, LLP have offices in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. The firm is experienced in incorporating religious organizations and applying for tax-exempt status. For more information or to schedule a consultation, call (718) 852-5900 or fill out our contact form.