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What Hobby Lobby's case could have in store for religious freedom and ACA

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 10:30 a.m. MDT

In this May 22, 2013, file photo, customers enter and exit a Hobby Lobby store in Denver. The Supreme Court of the United States is expected to hear arguments March 25 in the case of Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby. The final ruling will have implications not just for Obamacare, but also for the free exercise of religion in commerce.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — A legal battle over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate comes before the U.S. Supreme Court this week to determine whether a for-profit corporation has the same conscience rights as its individual owners do.

Justices will hear oral arguments Tuesday in cases involving the Hobby Lobby craft stores and a smaller business, Conestoga Wood Specialties. The owners of both companies claim complying with the ACA mandate would violate their religious beliefs that prohibit certain contraceptives.

And legal experts say the ruling, expected some time in June, will have implications not just for President Obama's embattled health care reform law, but also for the free exercise of religion in commerce.

There could be "dramatic consequences for the reach of this, because there are a number of places where there are small businesses that could claim … their religion requires them not to do certain things that regulatory claims would otherwise demand or vice-versa," said Robert W. Tuttle, a George Washington University Law School professor.

An indication of how far reaching the high court's ruling will be is the number of lawsuits the ACA's contraception mandate has generated. The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases are two of 47 lawsuits against the government brought by for-profit companies. Another 47 nonprofit groups, including religious affiliated schools and charities, have also sued making similar claims, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm representing Hobby Lobby and several of the nonprofit groups.

Government mandate challenged

Under the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services mandated what employee health insurance plans must cover. The contraception mandate is designed to address women's health care needs and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the final rules mean "women will not have to forego these services because of expensive co-pays or deductibles, or because an insurance plan doesn’t include contraceptive services."

Just three months after the rules were announced in August 2011, the legal challenges began from faith-based nonprofit organizations and for-profit employers who claimed the rules violated their religious freedom.

Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based craft store giant launched in founder David Green's garage, sued the government in September 2012. The Greens, who belong to Church of God of Prophecy and Southern Baptist congregations, said they offer certain types of birth control to their more than 13,000 employees. But the ACA mandates four other forms, including the "morning after pill," that the Greens contend abort the fetus, which conflicts with their religious beliefs.

Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a privately held kitchen cabinetry manufacturer that employs approximately 2,100 workers in seven locations, including Tooele, Utah, is owned by "a family of five Mennonites … (who) object as a matter of conscience to facilitating contraception that may prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the womb," according to the petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal of a ruling denying an exemption from this ACA provision.

Both companies claimed the government's birth control mandate violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is designed to prevent government from substantially burdening religious exercise without first showing a compelling justification.

The owners of both Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby each maintain that the hefty fines for not complying with the ACA's contraceptive mandate constitutes a substantial burden. For Hobby Lobby, the penalties total $475 million per year, while Conestoga faces fines of $35 million per year.

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