By Stephanie Vogel
The Supreme Court is scheduled to begin oral arguments this week for what is arguably the biggest case of its term – as Hobby Lobby, Inc. looks to tackle the ObamaCare contraception mandate head-on. The Oklahoma-based craft store giant, with over 600 branches nationwide, filed suit against the Health and Human Services (HHS) department, indicating that the firm’s First Amendment right of religious freedom has been violated by the contraception mandate. Naturally, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. has stirred up a media frenzy because the decision will have significant implications for ObamaCare and the future of Corporate America.
The Green family is a devoutly Christian family, who founded Hobby Lobby and to this day retains complete ownership. They pay their workers 90% over the federal minimum wage, provide on-site health clinics to their employees at their headquarters, and provide all of their full-time employees with a comprehensive health care plan that includes access to contraceptives. When ObamaCare was enacted in 2010, it required that all employers provide health care that covers all forms of contraception at no cost to the employee in its contraception mandate. There are a total of twenty forms of contraception included in this mandate, including abortifacients like the morning after pill and three other forms of contraceptives that are intended for use after conception. As an organization modeled on Christian values and the right to life, however, Hobby Lobby and the Green family argue that they should not have to comply with an invasive mandate that infringes upon their religious beliefs based on the protections guaranteed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).
Hobby Lobby filed for an exemption from the mandate in September 2012, which was originally denied in a western Oklahoma district court. In November of that year, the firm then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit for emergency relief from the mandate, which was also denied. After gaining increased attention from Capitol Hill and the media, though, the decision was overturned in July 2013, granting Hobby Lobby the temporary protection it sought from the mandate. Then in September 2013, the federal government appealed the case, and Hobby Lobby brought it before the Supreme Court, where oral arguments began Tuesday morning.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was implemented to protect the religious liberties of “persons,” a word typically defined by the courts as individuals, non-profit firms, and for-profit firms. Historically, the RFRA has been applied strictly to non-profit firms such as church-funded hospitals and charitable organizations. However, the statute does not exclude for-profit firms from protection. Hobby Lobby will argue this week before the Supreme Court that their status as a for-profit firm does not exclude them from protection from mandates that conflict with their religious beliefs.
Primarily, the federal government will focus its argument on the effect on the employee and the employee’s right to choose his or her own health care coverage. If the Court rules that for-profit firms are protected by the RFRA, then the government is prepared to argue what constitutes a “substantial religious burden,” which is required for the RFRA to apply. It is their argument that mandating the coverage of all forms of contraception does not pose a sufficient burden on Hobby Lobby or its owners because they are so far removed from an employee’s decision to choose their form of contraception.
What will ultimately fuel this debate debate will undoubtedly be Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision. Roberts has been notoriously criticized by conservatives for upholding the constitutionality of ObamaCare in 2012, and he faces the risk of further alienating himself from fellow conservatives. However, if Roberts upholds Hobby Lobby’s exemption from the contraception mandate, it opens the door for other companies to use religious affiliation as a means to evade federal law. A pro-Hobby Lobby decision would create the standard that corporations have the same basic rights as individuals – a standard that could potentially cause problems in the future. The ultimate challenge for Roberts will be the fight between staying on a traditional conservative path and potentially adopting a new legal standard for Corporate America.
Providing the backdrop for this monumental court case is, appropriately, the four-year anniversary of the enactment of ObamaCare. It could have been assumed in 2010 that four years was time enough to work out all potential kinks in the legislation, but that is clearly not what Americans see today. The decision in this case will not repeal ObamaCare, but it will have a tremendous impact on the health care law, the understanding of the First Amendment, and the structure of the legal system when applied to Corporate America. Does the government have the right to infringe upon the religious beliefs of for-profit firms? Do firms have the same rights as individuals? These crucial decisions will be made by the end of the Court’s term in June, and AMAC will be closely monitoring the latest Court developments as oral arguments take place this week in Washington.