DENVER — A panel of eight federal appellate court judges will hear oral arguments Thursday on whether Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. should be exempt from part of the Affordable Care Act that requires the company to cover the cost of emergency contraceptives for its workers through its employee health plan.
The case is one of several pending legal challenges to the health care law, but could be one of the most important cases to be heard yet by an appellate court, said Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby in its challenge to the health care law. Hobby Lobby's challenge on emergency contraceptives is the first in the nation to be granted a review by a full panel of federal appellate court judges.
“We think that it is a very important case for religious freedom and the rights of business owners, and we are hoping for a good decision from the court,” Windham said.
Attorneys for Hobby Lobby argue that the crafts retailer and its affiliated Christian bookstore chain Mardel's are governed by the religious beliefs of company founder and CEO David Green and his family. The family believes emergency contraceptives, such as the morning-after pill, are a form of abortion, which conflicts with their religious beliefs.
“The Greens have adopted religious statements of purpose for Hobby Lobby and consistently direct Hobby Lobby to engage in religious practices, such as closing on Sundays and buying newspaper ads at Christmas and Easter inviting readers to ‘know Jesus as Lord and Savior,'” attorneys for the company argue in court documents.
A key component of the federal government's argument in the case deals with whether the rights of Hobby Lobby as a company are separate from those of its private ownership — the Green family.
The federal government argues that Hobby Lobby is not protected under constitutional rights to religious freedom, because it is a secular, for-profit corporation.
“We don't believe that that is right according to the law and according to the facts and that is what we are going to try to get across to the court tomorrow,” Windham said.
In court documents, the government argues that the mandate on emergency contraceptive coverage under the new health care law does not harm the Green family's constitutional rights to religious freedom and that the family has no right to sue over the matter.
“The contraceptive-coverage requirement does not cause any ‘direct injury to the shareholder in his or her individual capacity' that could establish a shareholder's standing to sue,” the federal government said in court filings.
Attorneys for Hobby Lobby and the federal government will have 30 minutes each to present their arguments in the case on Thursday afternoon in a courtroom at the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Hobby Lobby hopes to have a ruling in the case from the court by July 1, when its health plan year expires and it will be subject to fines of up to $1.3 million a day for failing to provide emergency contraceptives coverage for its employees.
If the court denies Hobby Lobby's request for an injunction against the health care law while its court case is pending, the company would have to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Windham declined on Wednesday to say whether Hobby Lobby would appeal if the 10th Circuit rules against the company.