June 28, 2013 — The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ordered a lower court to reconsider its decision to reject retail chain Hobby Lobby's request for an exemption from the federal contraceptive coverage rules, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports (Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 6/27).
The rules 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, 5/24).
Details of Thursday's Decision
In a 165-page decision, the appeals court ruled 5-4 that Hobby Lobby met at least some requirements needed for temporary protection from the contraceptive coverage rules while the legal challenge continues. In particular, the judges ruled that the company's religious-based arguments appear to hold merit.
"Because the contraceptive-coverage requirement places substantial pressure on Hobby Lobby and Mardel to violate their sincere religious beliefs, their exercise of religion is substantially burdened," the majority concluded.
The judges continued, "Hobby Lobby and Mardel have drawn a line at providing coverage for drugs or devices they consider to induce abortions, and it is not for us to question whether the line is reasonable" (Baynes, Reuters, 6/27). Additionally, the judges said, "We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation's political expression but not its religious expression."
A majority of judges could not agree on other issues in the case (Wyatt, AP/Miami Herald, 6/27). They sent those components -- including whether an exemption would serve the public interest -- back to an Oklahoma district court (Reuters, 6/27).
The ruling deals a blow to the federal government's argument that for-profit corporations cannot claim they have constitutionally protected religious freedoms, The Oklahoman reports (Bailey, The Oklahoman, 6/27).
The ruling potentially could spare the company from $1.3 million in daily fines for failing to provide contraceptive coverage to its workers. The fines were scheduled to take effect on July 1 (Reuters, 6/27).
Hobby Lobby's attorneys filed court documents on Thursday in an attempt to obtain an injunction before Monday's deadline. "We are asking the court to move by all due haste," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (The Oklahoman, 6/27).
If Hobby Lobby eventually prevails, it could pave the way for other for-profit entities with religious ties to ask for similar relief, NBC News reports (Johnson, NBC News, 6/27).
The American Civil Liberties Union's Louise Melling said, "Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom. We are all entitled to our religious beliefs but not to impose those beliefs on others." As such, "A business like Hobby Lobby cannot use religion to discriminate by denying women coverage for contraception," she argued.
In a statement, the Catholic Association called the ruling "the most decisive victory yet" against the contraceptive coverage requirement, adding that the victory sends "the clearest signal possible to the Obama administration that no employer, no matter where he or she works, should be forced to choose between violating his or her conscience and paying a fine" ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 6/27).