WASHINGTON — The Affordable Care Act's mandate for contraception coverage is a textbook case of government intrusion on Hobby Lobby's right to exercise religion, attorneys for the Oklahoma City-based chain of craft stores contend in a new legal filing.
Just six weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case, Hobby Lobby told the justices in a brief filed Monday that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 makes no distinction between individuals and corporations.
“Ultimately, whether it is the individuals, the corporations, or both who are exercising religion, the government cannot simply wish away the reality that its policies substantially burden (Hobby Lobby's) religious exercise in a wholly unjustified manner,” the brief states.
Hobby Lobby, a national chain of more than 500 stores, and Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain, are closely held corporations owned by David Green and his family and operated according to their religious beliefs.
The companies do not object to providing health care plans that cover most of the contraceptives mandated by the government under the Affordable Care Act. However, they oppose four that can prevent an embryo from implanting in the womb: Plan B, Ella and two intrauterine devices.
“Respondents believe that human beings deserve protection from the moment of conception, and that providing insurance coverage for items that risk killing an embryo makes them complicit in abortion,” the brief filed Monday states.
The Obama administration is asking justices to reverse a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Hobby Lobby and Mardel have the same rights that individuals have under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A similar case involving a Pennsylvania furniture company owned by Mennonite Christians has been combined with the Hobby Lobby case; a federal appeals court ruled that the company, Conestoga Wood, did not have the same First Amendment religious protections as individuals.
Oral arguments in both cases are scheduled for March 25 and a decision is expected some time this summer.
Government disputes burden
Hobby Lobby faces nearly $500 million in tax penalties annually if the company offers health insurance but fails to comply with the mandate, or $26 million in penalties if it drops its health care coverage all together.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, and Hobby Lobby contends the Affordable Care Act does just that.
The Obama administration argued in a brief filed last month that corporations aren't afforded the same protections under the law as individuals and that, even if they were, the Affordable Care Act does not impose a substantial burden on them.
“A group health plan covers many items and services, and participants and their dependents, in consultation with their health care providers, decide which ones to use,” the government argued.
“Those decisions by independent third parties are not attributable to the employer that finances the plan or to the individuals who own the company, and the connection is too indirect as a matter of law to impose a substantial burden.”
Hobby Lobby countered in its brief that the government obviously sees a substantial burden on religious exercise in the mandate because it exempted “countless nonprofit entities” such as churches and religious organizations.