The Supreme Court announced today it would hear a challenge to a provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires certain employers to provide health insurance coverage of FDA-approved contraceptives including the so-called morning after pill and the week-after pill.
WHY DID THE COURT AGREE TO TACKLE THE ISSUE?
In a statement the court announced that it was taking up two different cases from for-profit corporations who argue the so-called “contraceptive mandate” violates their religious beliefs.
One case involves Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., owned by the Hahn family of Pennsylvania. They are practicing Mennonites who say they want to run their wholesale manufacturer of custom wood kitchen cabinet parts in a manner that reflects their religious beliefs.
Another case concerns Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain with about 13,000 employees. Hobby Lobby, owned by the Green family, says that while it has no moral objection to the use of 16 of 20 preventive contraceptives required in the mandate it cannot provide or pay for four of the drugs including Plan B and Ella, the so-called morning-after pill and the week-after pill.
WHAT DO THE CHALLENGERS BELIEVE?
The Greens belief is that human life begins when sperm fertilize an egg and that it is immoral for them to facilitate any act that causes the death of a human embryo. Lawyers for Hobby Lobby say that their clients are forced to either violate their faith by covering the mandated contraceptives or pay crippling penalties.
“It would not be consistent for us to live one way at home and accept a different way at work,” says Steve Green, President of Hobby Lobby in a video provided by his lawyers. “That would be inconsistent with our faith.”
WHAT IS THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S POSITION?
The Obama administration defends the regulations arguing that the mandate promotes public health, and that for -profit corporate respondents -like Hobby Lobby–are not “persons” within the meaning of RFRA. “The court is Appeals decision is incorrect,” Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote in court papers, “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.”
WHAT IS THE CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUE AT STAKE HERE?
At issue is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) a federal law that says that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.
WHAT HAPPENED IN LOWER COURTS?
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the definition of “person” under the law includes corporations regardless of their profit-making status. Furthermore, the court held that the Hobby Lobby incurs a substantial burden under the law because its religious beliefs are compromised and it could be forced to pay large fines. The court noted that the contraceptive-coverage requirement does not apply to those working for private employers with grandfathered plans, for employers with fewer than 50 employees and under a proposed rule, for colleges and universities run by religious institutions.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The Supreme Court will consolidate the two cases for one hour of argument that will most likely occur at the end of March.