WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court justices, who must routinely resolve contemporary disputes over the nation’s oldest principles, are set to hear arguments Tuesday about Hobby Lobby’s religious objections to providing certain forms of birth control to their employees.
The Oklahoma City-based chain of arts-and-crafts stores is at the center of the most closely watched case of the high court’s term — a case that could further define religious freedom in the United States in its challenge to a key part of the Affordable Care Act.
More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against the federal government over the requirement under the health care law that insurance companies offer a wide variety of contraceptives to women at no cost.
About half of those lawsuits have been brought by for-profit corporations, like Hobby Lobby, which is owned by David Green and his family. A Christian book store, Mardel, which is also owned by the Green family, is part of the case, as is a custom furniture company in Pennsylvania owned by a Mennonite Christian family.
The families say some of the contraceptives can effectively kill a fertilized egg and that including those in company health insurance plans would make the families complicit in abortion.
Federal appeals courts have split over whether for-profit companies can make a claim under the First Amendment or the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that question has generated much of the discussion about the case. Will the Supreme Court extend the right of religious expression to for-profit corporations in the same way it extended free speech rights in a campaign finance case four years ago?
Walter Dellinger, who argued Supreme Court cases for the U.S. government during former President Bill Clinton’s administration, said the question of whether for-profit companies can make religious expression claims in court is an overrated one in the case.
He predicted that the court would allow the assertion by the Greens that they, as managers of Hobby Lobby, would have their religious beliefs burdened by the contraception mandate.
Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the court should reject the Greens’ claim.
“Religious protection only makes sense when applied to actual people,” she said at a recent panel discussion on the case. “Corporations lack the fundamentally human attributes — whether it’s relationship with God or inviolable dignity— that justify religious liberty.”
The high court, which is expected to issue a decision in the case sometime before its term ends in June, has extended the time for arguments on Tuesday from the traditional 60 minutes to 90 minutes.
There’s a lot to talk about:
•Does the government have an interest in the contraception mandate compelling enough to justify a burden on religion?
•Are there other ways the government could achieve its goal of no-cost contraception coverage for women without burdening the religious beliefs of the Greens?
•Would a ruling for Hobby Lobby effectively require Hobby Lobby employees to pay the cost of the Greens’ religious beliefs?
•Can Hobby Lobby even contend that it’s required to pay for the contraceptives it opposes since the company could drop its health insurance coverage and pay an assessment for each employee that would actually be far less than the coverage itself?
Members of the Green family and the Pennsylvania family are expected to be in the courtroom Tuesday for the arguments.
Some legal experts watching the case think the court will avoid making a sweeping decision, particularly one that would grant an open-ended extension of religious rights to for-profit corporations.
“I think it may well be likely that the court avoids any dramatic pronouncements,” Dellinger said.
Corporations lack the fundamentally human attributes — whether it’s relationship with God or inviolable dignity— that justify religious liberty.”
Caroline Mala Corbi,
Law professor, University of Miami