Obamacare contraceptives impose religious burden, US appeals court rules

The Tenth Circuit ruling in a case brought by the devout Christian owners of hobby and book stores marks the first time an appeals court has examined Obamacare's contraceptives policy.

Ed Andrieski/AP/File
Customers walk toward a Hobby Lobby store in Denver. The owners of Hobby Lobby stores are challenging a federal mandate requiring them to offer employees health coverage that includes access to the morning-after birth control pill. The Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain says the mandate violates the religious beliefs of its owners.

Requiring that certain contraceptives be made available under the mandated health-care coverage of Obamacare would substantially burden the religious rights of a chain of hobby stores and Christian bookstores and their devout Christian owners, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The court ruled that the companies, Hobby Lobby Stores and Mardel, Inc., and its owners, the Green family, have a valid claim in their case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

But a majority of judges on the court declined to approve an injunction that would allow the company an exemption from paying for contraceptive methods they find religiously offensive.

Instead, the court sent that issue back to a federal judge to determine whether an injunction should be issued to protect the religious rights of the company and its owners.

The company is facing a July 1 deadline to comply.

“We hold that Hobby Lobby and Mardel are entitled to bring claims under RFRA, have established a likelihood of success that their rights under this statute are substantially burdened by the contraceptive-coverage requirement, and have established an irreparable harm,” Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote for the court.

“But we remand the case to the district court for further proceedings on two of the remaining factors governing the grant or denial of a preliminary injunction,” he said.

The 5-to-3 decision by the Tenth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver marks the first time an appeals court has examined the issue.

The case is one of 60 that have been filed by individuals, companies, and organizations across the country complaining that the president’s health-care mandate will force them to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

They charge that the mandate will force them to pay for certain types of offensive contraceptives, including the so-called morning-after pill that they consider an abortifacient.  

Of the 20 contraceptive methods required to be offered under Obamacare, the company and its owners objected to four – two types of IUDs and the emergency morning-after pills known as Plan B and Ella.

They object because they believe that life begins when an egg is fertilized. The company and its owners do not object to paying for their employees to use the other 16 contraceptive methods that prevent fertilization.

The Obama administration has refused to issue an exemption to the companies. Government lawyers argue that the contraceptive mandate is no burden on religious belief because it is up to an individual employee to choose which method to use.

The owners disagree. They believe that life begins at conception and that contraceptive methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg are causing harm to human beings. The government mandate forces them to subsidize that harm. 

Hobby Lobby has more than 500 stores employing 13,000 fulltime workers. Mardel runs 35 bookstores employing 400 workers.

According to the court’s opinion, the companies face a difficult choice: Remain faithful to their religious beliefs or pay hefty fines. If they refuse to pay for the offensive contraceptives as part of the mandated coverage, they could face fines of up to $1.3 million a day or $475 million a year.

The opinion noted an alternative: “If the corporations instead drop employee health insurance altogether, they will face penalties of $26 million per year.”

Judge Tymkovich noted that government lawyers argue that there can be no claim under RFRA if the alleged government coercion of religious adherents depends on the independent action of third parties – like the Hobby Lobby employees.

The majority judges rejected that view. “Our only task is to determine whether the claimant’s belief is sincere, and if so, whether the government has applied substantial pressure on the claimant to violate that belief,” he wrote.

“No one disputes in this case the sincerity of Hobby Lobby and Mardel’s religious beliefs,” he said. “And because the contraceptive-coverage requirement places substantial pressure on Hobby Lobby and Mardel to violate their sincere religious beliefs, their exercise of religion is substantially burdened within the meaning of RFRA,” he wrote.

Typkovich noted that government lawyers have said the government’s interest in mandating universal health insurance coverage is to advance the twin goals of public health and gender equality. The judge said the government had not explained “how those larger interests would be undermined by granting Hobby Lobby and Mardel their requested exemption.”

“Hobby Lobby and Mardel ask only to be excused from covering four contraceptive methods out of twenty, not to be excused from covering contraception altogether,” the judge said. “The government does not articulate why accommodating such a limited request fundamentally frustrates its goals.”

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

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