Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.’s victory this week at the U.S. Supreme Court over contraceptives coverage mandates in the Affordable Care Act could affect several other Oklahoma employers who still have pending lawsuits challenging the mandate.
While the Supreme Court’s five-to-four decision — which found that some companies are entitled to the same religious freedoms as their owners — was limited to closely held, for-profit corporations, the ruling could have much broader legal consequences, said Kevin Gordon, president of the Oklahoma law firm Crowe & Dunlevy, who is also chairman of the firm’s healthcare litigation group.
“While the Supreme Court majority opinion went out of the way to say that this only applies to for-profit, closely held corporations that have a religious code by which they operate their businesses, it left the door open to extending it to other companies — including for-profit publicly traded companies, even though it is unlikely such companies would have a consistent religious doctrine, the door is definitely open to that,” Gordon said.
Four Oklahoma Christian universities — Southern Nazarene University, Oklahoma Baptist University, Oklahoma Wesleyan University and Mid-American Christian University — moved to sue the federal government in September over the contraceptives coverage mandates that are part of the Affordable Care Act.
As religious nonprofits, the universities qualify for an accommodation under the Affordable Care Act that would allow their insurance carriers to pay for the contraceptives coverage rather than the schools themselves. However the schools have moved to challenge the mandate, arguing the accommodation did not go far enough to protect deeply held religious beliefs against certain types of contraceptives, such as the morning-after pill.
Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the group Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the schools, called the Hobby Lobby decision encouraging, although the Hobby Lobby case involved a different set of legal issues involving a for-profit company.
“It ought to have a positive impact (for the schools),” Baylor said. “The way the court approached the issues in that case and its reasoning and outcome are very helpful to the colleges and universities in Oklahoma that have challenged the mandate.”
U.S. District Judge Stephen P. Friot granted the schools a preliminary injunction against complying with the health care law in January, which the federal government has challenged at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
The court could ask the parties to submit additional legal briefs on what effect they believe the Hobby Lobby decision will have on the case, Baylor said.
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Inc. and All Saints Catholic School in Norman also are suing the federal government over contraceptives coverage requirements as part of a lawsuit led by the Catholic Benefits Association.
While U.S. District Court Judge David L. Russell granted some of the Catholic Benefits plaintiffs a temporary injunction in June, including the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, the Catholic Benefits Association went a step further on Tuesday and asked the court to extend the injunction to other members classified as religious nonprofits, including All Saints Catholic School in Norman and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Inc. The group cited the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision heavily in the 80-page legal brief.
“Defendants have asserted that some religious for-profit employers (sole proprietors and general partnerships) have standing to invoke religious liberty protections while all others (corporations, limited partnerships, etc.) do not. ... The United States Supreme Court rejected this argument,” Catholic Charities said in the filing.
Attempts to reach an attorney for the Catholic Benefits Association were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
CONTRIBUTING: Nolan Clay, Staff Writer