.- The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases challenging the controversial federal contraception mandate, filed by for-profit businesses and their owners on the grounds of religious freedom.
“My family and I are encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide our case,” said David Green, founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby, one of the two companies whose challenge to the mandate will come before the court.
“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 continued in a Nov. 26 statement. “Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law.”
The court announced on Nov. 26 that it would hear both Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius.
The cases both challenge a federal mandate, issued under the Affordable Care Act, that requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
More than 200 plaintiffs – including states, individuals, non-profit organizations and owners of for-profit businesses – have filed religious freedom lawsuits challenging the mandate. Many of these cases are still working their way through the court system, and the for-profit cases are the first to reach the Supreme Court.
Among cases that have received a ruling on their merits, 35 have been granted a preliminary injunction blocking the mandate from going into effect while legal proceedings continue, while six have been denied this injunction, according to the Becker Fund for Religious Liberty.
The U.S. government has argued that the First Amendment right to religious freedom does not extend to owners of for-profit businesses as they make decisions for their companies.
The business owners have argued that their faith affects all aspects of their lives, and forbids them to “check their beliefs at the door” when they go to work. They say that both the Constitution and federal law protect a broad exercise of religious freedom.
The Supreme Court said that it would address both the constitutional issues surrounding the mandate and claims that the rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires a “compelling government interest” in order for a law to interfere with an individual’s free practice of his or her faith.
The mandate cases will likely be heard next spring, with a ruling expected by July 2014.
“The government shouldn’t be able to punish Americans for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the Hahn family, a Mennonite family and owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties.
“The administration has no business forcing citizens to choose between making a living and living free,” Cortman said. “We trust the Supreme Court will agree. A government that forces any citizen to participate in immoral acts – like the use of abortion drugs – under threat of crippling fines is a government everyone should fear.”
“This is a major step for the Greens and their family businesses in an important fight for Americans’ religious liberty,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby.
“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will clarify once and for all that religious freedom in our country should be protected for family business owners like the Greens.”
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, also welcomed the court’s decision, saying that it “highlights the importance of this conflict between the federal government and people seeking to practice their faith in daily life.”
“We pray that the Supreme Court will find that the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protect everyone’s right to religious freedom,” he continued, voicing gratitude for the “courageous actions” of those who are fighting for religious liberty in courts.
At their fall assembly earlier this month, the U.S. bishops unanimously reaffirmed their opposition to the contraceptive mandate and their commitment to religious freedom.
“The owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are fighting for the most basic right to run their business according to their religious beliefs,” commented Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, a group that seeks to bring a faithful Catholic voice to the public square.
“They stand for the 200 and counting plaintiffs who should not have to choose between their faith or crippling fines,” she continued in a statement, charging that the “mandate is an egregious violation of religious freedom.”
The American Religious Freedom Program, part of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, argued that the mandate “fails” established legal tests protecting religious freedom in federal law, because it “picks and chooses whose religious civil rights and liberties it will protect.”
“By choosing to consider a challenge to this mandate,” the organization said in a statement, “the Supreme Court may now take a major step toward preserving America's exemplary tradition of religious freedom.”
“We are confident that the Court will ultimately decide to preserve the robust religious rights and liberties upon which this great nation was founded.”