Supreme Court Hears Religious Freedom Cases

Two faith-based businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, had their day before the US Supreme Court this week.  Both businesses have brought a religious freedom challenge against the Obama Administration’s mandate that all new health plans cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. 

In this “David and Goliath” struggle against the Executive Branch, Paul Clement, who served as United States Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, argued on behalf of the businesses before the Supreme Court Justices.  The federal government was represented by Donald Verrilli, the current United States Solicitor General. 

A number of the Justices were actively engaged with questions during this oral argument.  Much of the debate centered on the applicability of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), among other statutes and case law, to these challenges. In particular, the ability of for-profit corporations to exercise religion was under the microscope, as was the existence (or not) of a “compelling interest” for the objectionable Obamacare mandate. 

In one interesting exchange, Justice Anthony Kennedy, often looked at as a “swing vote” on the Court, stated to General Verrilli, “Under your view, a profit corporation could be forced… in principle to pay for abortions.”  The Solicitor General countered, “…there is no law like that on the books. In fact, the law is the opposite.” However, Chief Justice John Roberts quickly jumped in and in the course of questioning highlighted, “Isn't that what we are talking about in terms of their religious beliefs? One of the religious beliefs is that they have to pay for these four methods of contraception that they believe provide abortions. I thought that's what we had before us.”

As private businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties do not fall under the narrow religious exemption of this federal mandate, so they would be required to include such coverage of abortion-inducing drugs when their health plans renew or face exorbitant and potentially fatal federal fines for their refusal to comply.

NRB highlighted again this week its solidarity with these companies in their religious freedom battle. Notably, the NRB Board of Directors, a body of nearly 100 key leaders in faith-based media, unanimously approved a Resolution last month urging the Supreme Court to uphold the free exercise rights of these two family businesses. The Board also called on NRB members “to pray for the Justices of the United States Supreme Court that they may render just decisions which provide constitutionally sound and robust protections for the exercise of religious freedom in America.” Moreover, NRB’s Office of General Counsel filed an Amicus Curiae (“Friend of the Court”) brief in this case arguing for appropriate “breathing room” for religious freedom.

A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the end of June.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: March 28, 2014