Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius leave a White House press briefing last year after the president announced the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control.The legal challenges over religious freedom and the birth control coverage requirement in Obama’s health-care overhaul appear to be moving toward the US Supreme Court.

Court to hear case on whether Obamacare violates religious liberties

The federal appeals court in Denver is set to hear arguments Thursday on whether the Obama health-care law can compel business owners to violate 'sincerely held religious beliefs.'

A federal appeals court in Denver is set to hear argument on Thursday in a lawsuit charging that the Obama administration’s requirement that employers provide contraceptive services in all mandated health plans violates religious liberty.

The full 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled an hour-long argument session to allow lawyers for the family-owned Hobby Lobby Stores to argue their case that the contraception mandate violates sincerely held religious beliefs of the company owners.

The owners, the Green family, are evangelical Christians. The company already provides their 13,000 employees with health-care coverage, but it does not include certain kinds of birth control methods that are offensive to the Green’s religious beliefs. They particularly object to the provision of the so-called morning after pill, which they believe can be abortion-inducing.

The case is one of 59 lawsuits challenging the contraception mandate that are pending across the county, and one of a handful to reach the appellate level. Legal analysts expect potential future appeals to arrive at the US Supreme Court later this year.

Specifically at issue is whether the courts should issue a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of President Obama’s health-care reform law pending a full airing of the underlying religious liberty issue.

Appeals courts have split on the question, with three granting an injunction and three others refusing to block the new law.

The legal dispute is developing into a major confrontation pitting the scope of an individual’s ability to practice religious freedom against the Obama administration’s power to order employers to facilitate reproductive freedom for their female employees. 

Government lawyers defend the health-care regulations, saying that they do not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or constitutional guarantees of freedom to follow one’s religion without government interference.

In briefs to the appeals court, they said the decision whether to use certain government-required health-care services was a decision to be made by the employee, not the employer.

Government lawyers also argued that any burden of providing contraceptive services is a burden to the company, not to its owners. They said that profit-making companies like Hobby Lobby Stores do not enjoy religious liberty protections under the First Amendment.

Those protections cover nonprofit religious organizations, government lawyers said, not for-profit, secular companies.

“[The company owners] cannot circumvent this distinction by asserting that the contraceptive-coverage requirement is a substantial burden on the [owners’] personal exercise of religion,” the government’s brief to the appeals court said.

“The mandate does not compel the [owners] as individuals to do anything,” the brief said. The lawyers said that it is Hobby Lobby that is the employer and Hobby Lobby that sponsors the group health plan.

Any subsequent decision to purchase a contraceptive service belongs to the employee, the government said, and any resulting clash with the owners’ religious beliefs is only a “slight burden” of religious practice, the brief said.

Lawyers for the Green family disagree.

“This case asks whether religious business owners forfeit their faith as a cost of doing business,” lawyers with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty wrote in their brief on behalf of the Green family and Hobby Lobby Stores.

They said the contraception mandate would force the Green family and their company to offer insurance that “entangles them and their business in the practice of abortion.”

If the family refuses to comply, they and their company will face substantial financial penalties.

“When government threatens to ruin a family’s business unless they renounce their faith, the pressure placed on them is unmistakable,” the Becket Fund lawyers wrote.

“By any means of law and common sense, the Greens and Hobby Lobby are severely burdened by the government’s draconian regulation, and they may seek redress under our Constitution and laws,” the lawyers said.

Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts retail company with more than 500 stores in 40 states. The Green family also owns Mardel, Inc., which runs 35 Christian-themed book stores employing 372 workers. The bookstore business is also a plaintiff in the suit.

The case is Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius (12-6294).

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