May 24, 2013 — The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday heard the arguments from the federal government and retail chain Hobby Lobby over the company's request for an exemption from the federal contraceptive coverage rules, The Oklahoman reports (Bailey, The Oklahoman, 5/23).
Normally, a three-judge panel hears appeals cases, but Hobby Lobby asked the entire panel to hear the case, and the court agreed. The court also granted Hobby Lobby's request to hear the case on an expedited basis because the company could begin incurring fines in July.
The company is seeking an injunction to block the federal government from enforcing the contraceptive coverage rules, which require most health plans to cover contraceptive services. Hobby Lobby's Christian owners argue that the rules violate their religious beliefs because they consider some forms of contraception to be the equivalent of an abortion.
Although the Obama administration has proposed an accommodation for religiously affiliated employers to ensure that they do not have to pay directly for contraceptive coverage, the accommodation was not extended to for-profit businesses such as Hobby Lobby. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirements (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/1).
Attorney Kyle Duncan -- representing the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby and its sister company, Mardel -- argued that a for-profit company is not precluded from protection under the First Amendment's right to religious freedom.
Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe expressed skepticism about this claim, questioning whether Hobby Lobby as a corporation could have a constitutional protection of religion.
Duncan said, "Yes, this is a corporation. But it is also a ministry to further the religious purposes of the family."
Alisa Klein representing the federal government in the Hobby Lobby case and similar lawsuits -- said the distinction between a company and its shareholders is a basic principle of American corporate law (The Oklahoman, 5/23).
She argued that allowing Hobby Lobby an exemption from the contraceptive coverage rules would effectively force the owners' religious beliefs on the employees. "If you make an exemption for the employer, it comes at the expense of the employee," she said (AP/Modern Healthcare, 5/23).