SCOTUS up angle1

From Religion News Service and BJC Staff Reports

A split among the federal courts of appeals regarding the application of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate to for-profit businesses with religious objections is likely to accelerate U.S. Supreme Court review of the issue.

Federal officials have asked the High Court to review a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that for-profit companies cannot be required to offer employees insurance coverage contrary to business owners’ moral objections. In a separate petition, a private business owner is seeking High Court review of a converse ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate, finalized in June, requires most employers to provide employee insurance coverage for preventive health services — including birth control, morning-after pills and sterilization — at no cost. While there are exemptions for religious groups and affiliated institutions, there are no carve-outs for for-profit businesses with religious owners. Opponents of the mandate who fall into the latter category say that they will be forced to provide coverage they find morally abhorrent.

On Sept. 19, the administration petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse a lower court decision in a case involving Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain owned by evangelical Christians who maintain their religious beliefs prevent them from complying with the government’s contraceptive mandate. While Hobby Lobby prevailed on its claim in the 10th Circuit, the 3rd Circuit rejected similar arguments advanced by a family-owned woodworking business. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court on Sept. 19 as well.

Also in September, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion agreeing with the 3rd Circuit that for-profit companies must comply with the mandate.

Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit has been one of the most high profile of 60-some cases involving the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. The petitions now pending before the High Court center on interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest. The Court is being asked to determine whether for-profit businesses can “exercise religion” within the meaning of the statute and, if so, whether the mandate amounts to a substantial burden on those rights.

The government is urging the Supreme Court to decide that for-profit corporations cannot deny their employees certain health coverage to which they are otherwise entitled by federal law based merely on the employers’ religious objections.

Attorneys for Hobby Lobby see it differently.

“The United States government is taking the remarkable position that private individuals lose their religious freedom when they make a living,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby.

The split among the federal courts of appeals virtually ensures the Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue.

If the Supreme Court grants the petitions to hear the cases, it could issue a decision before the end of the Court’s term in June 2014.

From the October 2013 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.