Alumni Short

Students Argue the Effect of the Affordable Care Act on Religious Exercise in the 2013 Cuccia Cup Moot Court Competition

Ithaca, NEW YORK, December 17, 2013

Can a corporation exercise religion? Does the contraceptive coverage requirement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) impermissibly burden the religious rights of a corporation or its owners? In early November, an enthusiastic cohort of second- and third-year law students wrestled with these questions when they argued this year's Cuccia Cup problem, "Bonnie's Wollenberg, Inc. v. Sebelius," created by the Cornell Law School Moot Court Board. The Board's editorial team based the problem on several split cases in circuit courts, most notably Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to resolve the circuit split by considering appeals in both cases. 

The first issue in the Cuccia Cup problem addressed whether or not, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a for-profit, secular corporation was a person and thus able to exercise religion. The petitioner argued that because a nonprofit corporation and a for-profit sole trader could exercise religion, a for-profit corporation was also able to exercise religion. The respondent countered that precedent could not be combined to find that a for-profit corporation could exercise religion, and furthermore, Congress had never intended to extend the protections of the RFRA to for-profit corporations.


The second issue addressed whether an employer's religious beliefs were substantially burdened by the mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to employees. The petitioner argued that the ACA coerced religious employers into providing the coverage and thus violated their religious beliefs, as the alternative was to pay a crippling fine. The respondent countered that the connection between an employee's potential use of contraceptives and the employer's religious beliefs was too attenuated, and in any event, the government had a compelling interest in mandating employers to provide contraceptive coverage.

The tournament culminated on November 9 in the MacDonald Moot Court Room, with Matthew Tymann '14 and Ben Rudofsky '14 representing the petitioner, Bonnie's Wollenberg, and Ryan Mansell '15 and Christopher Benedik '15 representing the respondent, the United States. The two finalists faced an active panel of federal judges: Hon. Charles R. Wilson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; Hon. Richard C. Wesley '74 of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Hon. Karen K. Caldwell of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky; Hon. J. Frederick Motz of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland; and Hon. Amy J. St. Eve '90 of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

After a hard-fought and entertaining final round, followed by lengthy deliberations, Tymann and Rudofsky were proclaimed the winners. In announcing the winners, Judge Wilson stated that the quality of advocacy from both teams easily equaled that which he had heard earlier in the week in the Eleventh Circuit. Judge Wesley described choosing the winning team as "one of the tightest decisions" he has had to make. All of the judges praised the demonstrable work ethic of the competitors. As well as finishing as runners-up in the oral arguments, Mansell and Benedik won the prize for best brief.

"This year's Cuccia Cup impressed the Board on all fronts," said Moot Court Chancellor Jon Underwood '14. "Every team put a great deal of effort into their arguments, and their preparation showed in how skillfully they were able to answer the myriad questions fired at them from the bench. The final-round teams displayed excellent appellate advocacy skills—congratulations to both teams!"

The prizes for the Cuccia Cup are funded annually through endowed gifts from the late Francis P. Cuccia (LL.B. 1912), in memory of Mary Heagan Cuccia, as well as from Helen Belding Smith and the estate of Henry P. Smith III (1936). The prizes for Best Brief are funded through an endowed gift from Louis Kaiser (LL.B. 1921). 

—Jon Underwood '14, Chancellor Moot Court Board