High court to rule on Hobby Lobby suit

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the federal government can enforce an abortion/contraception mandate against business owners who conscientiously object.

The justices announced Tuesday (Nov. 26) they would review lower court rulings in lawsuits against the Obama administration's requirement that employers to provide contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, for their workers. The high court consolidated two cases and will hear oral arguments next year but not before March. A decision is expected before the court adjourns next summer.

The cases involve split opinions in two appeals court circuits: The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled in favor of the religious freedom rights of Hobby Lobby and its sister corporation Mardel, Oklahoma City-based retail chains owned by the pro-life evangelical Christian Green family, while the Third Circuit in Philadelphia decided against Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania business owned by pro-life Mennonites.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which joined a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to review the appeals court decisions and rule in favor of the business owners, applauded the justices' announcement.

"The Supreme Court's consideration of the [cases] is the most important religious liberty question in recent years," ERLC President Russell D. Moore said in a written statement. "What's at stake in this case is whether or not the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion.

"We cannot accept the theology lesson that the government has sought to teach us, that religion is merely a matter of what happens during the scheduled times of our services and is left there in the foyer during the rest of the week. Our religious convictions aren't reduced to mere opinions we hide in our heart and in our hymns. Our religious convictions inform the way we live.

"I pray the Supreme Court recognizes what the founders of this country saw, that religious liberty isn't a gift handed to us by Uncle Caesar," Moore said. "Religious liberty is given to us by God and is inalienable."

Hobby Lobby founder David Green welcomed the news.

"This legal challenge has always remained about one thing and one thing only: the right of our family businesses to live out our sincere and deeply held religious convictions as guaranteed by the law and the Constitution," Green said in a written release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law."

A major question the Supreme Court will consider is whether owners of for-profit companies can exercise their religion in the conduct of their businesses.

In its July ruling against Conestoga Wood, a divided three-judge panel of the Third Circuit said for-profit, secular organizations "cannot engage in religious exercise." A month earlier, however, the 10th Circuit rejected the Obama administration's argument that protections under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act do not extend to for-profit companies. The 10th Circuit ruled corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel "can be 'persons' exercising religion for purposes" of RFRA.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued the abortion/contraception mandate on behalf of the Obama administration as part of implementing the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care reform law. In addition to contraceptives, the mandate requires coverage of such drugs as Plan B and other "morning-after" pills that possess a post-fertilization mechanism that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers "ella," which -- in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 -- can even act after implantation to end the life of the child.

For-profit and non-profit corporations have filed a total of 84 lawsuits against the mandate, according to the Becket Fund. GuideStone Financial Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention's health and financial benefits entity, combined with two of its health plan participants to file one of the suits in October.

The 10th Circuit case is Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, while the Third Circuit case is Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius. Kathleen Sebelius is the HHS secretary.


Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).