September 20, 2013 — The Obama administration on Thursday asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the retail chain Hobby Lobby can refuse to comply with the federal contraceptive coverage rules on the grounds that doing so would violate its owners' religious freedoms, Reuters reports.
According to Reuters, the high court likely will take the case because federal appeals courts are divided in their rulings on the contraceptive coverage rules and both sides want the justices to weigh in (Hurley, Reuters, 9/19). While the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, two other federal appeals courts -- the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia and the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati -- rejected similar claims from other private businesses (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 9/19). On Thursday, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom also filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to review the 3rd Circuit's decision.
If the Supreme Court accepts the case, a ruling would be expected during the court's upcoming term, which starts next month and ends in June (Reuters, 9/19).
Background on Hobby Lobby Case
The contraceptive coverage rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most employers to offer the coverage to their workers. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and religiously affiliated not-for-profits are eligible for an accommodation that ensures they do not have to pay for or directly provide the coverage to their employees.
In July, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton granted Hobby Lobby a preliminary injunction against the rules, arguing that the stay was justified because of "substantial" public interest involved in the case, the number of similar lawsuits and the size of the penalties the chain would have to pay for failing to comply with the mandate.
Heaton's ruling followed a June 27 decision by the 10th Circuit that determined the company's religious-based arguments appear to hold merit. "Because the contraceptive-coverage requirement places substantial pressure on Hobby Lobby and Mardel [another plaintiff in the case] to violate their sincere religious beliefs, their exercise of religion is substantially burdened," the circuit court judges concluded (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/22).
The primary issues in the cases are whether a corporation can be considered a "person" under laws that govern religious freedom and whether a corporation can exercise religious beliefs, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Plaintiffs challenging the contraceptive coverage rules base their claims on the First Amendment's protection for the "free exercise of religion" and on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141), a 1993 law meant to strengthen religious liberties (Los Angeles Times, 9/19).
In Thursday's filing, the Department of Justice argued that the 10th Circuit's "decision is incorrect and would transform RFRA from a shield for individuals and religious institutions into a sword used to deny employees of for-profit commercial enterprises the benefits and protections of generally applicable laws." DOJ added that the court's "unprecedented ruling warrants review" because the 10th Circuit in its decision did not cite any other ruling "that has ever accepted a claim that RFRA enables a for-profit corporate employer to exempt itself from generally applicable employment regulations."
The agency added that there also is an "acknowledged conflict" in the appeals courts' rulings in contraceptive coverage cases "that is likely to deepen soon" unless the Supreme Court intervenes (Bunis, CQ HealthBeat, 9/19).
Kyle Duncan -- general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby -- in statement said that the federal government "is taking the remarkable position that private individuals lose their religious freedom when they make a living." He added, "We're confident that the Supreme Court will reject the government's extreme position and hold that religious liberty is for everyone -- including people who run a business" (Los Angeles Times, 9/19).
Brigitte Amiri -- a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed amicus briefs in support of the Obama administration -- said the contraceptive coverage requirement is "no different from a company paying an employee's salary and [an employee] making decisions about how to spend that money on their own," even if what the employee does "with that salary might disagree with the employer's views" (Haberkorn, Politico, 9/20).