A federal appeals court in Denver sided with Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. on Thursday in its legal battle against part of the Affordable Care Act.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals moved to reverse a lower court's decision to deny Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.'s quest for an injunction against part of the Affordable Care Act that requires it to cover the cost of emergency contraceptives for some of its employees.
In a statement, Hobby Lobby founder and CEO David Green said he and his family believe that life begins with conception and paying for their employees to have insurance coverage for emergency contraceptives such as the morning-after pill would force them to violate their religious beliefs.
“We believe that business owners should not have to be forced to choose between following their faith and following the law,” he said in the statement. “We will continue to fight for our religious freedom, and we appreciate the prayers of support we have received.”
In a 168-page ruling issued Thursday, the federal appeals court sent the case back to a lower court for further review.
The panel of eight appellate court judges who heard arguments in May ruled unanimously that Hobby Lobby and its affiliated Christian bookstore chain Mardel have the right to sue over the Affordable Care Act.
“A religious individual may enter the for-profit realm intending to demonstrate to the marketplace that a corporation can succeed financially while adhering to religious values,” the judges said in the ruling.
The ruling is a blow to the federal government's argument that as for-profit corporations, the companies cannot claim that the health care law is a violation of constitutionally protected religious freedoms.
Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Hobby Lobby, called the appeals court ruling a significant milestone for the company and other businesses that are challenging the health care law.
“It confirms all along the argument that we have been making for the Green family — that they have the right to exercise religion in the running of their business,” Duncan said. “The government has consistently denied that.”
Judges split on temporary injunction
Hobby Lobby is the largest company to sue the federal government over the health care law, according to the Becket Fund. The company is one of 60 legal challenges to the mandate on emergency contraceptives.
The judges were split on whether Hobby Lobby meets all of the standards to receive a temporary injunction against the health care law while its lawsuit is ongoing.
While four of the eight judges who heard the case believe Hobby Lobby should qualify for a temporary injunction, they were one vote short of a majority.
The case has been sent back to the lower court with instructions for further review.
Hobby Lobby's lawsuit will now head back to U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, which earlier ruled against Hobby Lobby's quest for relief from the health care law.
Beginning Monday, the company will be subject to fines of up to $1.3 million a day for failing to comply with the health care mandate.
Hobby Lobby's attorneys filed court documents Thursday afternoon in hopes of obtaining the injunction before the July 1 deadline when the fines will start to accrue.
“We are asking the court to move by all due haste,” Duncan said.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who submitted a legal brief in support of Hobby Lobby, lauded the court's ruling on Thursday, calling it a win for Oklahoma and other states that have challenged the Affordable Care Act. Insurance Commissioner John Doak also praised the ruling.
“The health care law's mandate requiring religious groups to violate their lawful beliefs and practices directly goes against the ideals that our founding fathers set in place to protect Americans from an overbearing and intrusive government,” Pruitt said in a statement.
The watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the ruling could open the door for religious employers to deny access to certain forms of birth control to their employees.
“This is taking the direction of defining religious liberty in a disturbing way by allowing the religious beliefs of an owner of even a secular company to undermine reproductive rights of women and individual employees,” said Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United.