DENVER – Hobby Lobby’s legal battle against the abortion/contraceptive mandate received a boost March 29 when the full 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the company’s case.
Such “en banc” hearings are relatively rare.
In November a federal judge ruled that Hobby Lobby must cover the drugs in its employee health insurance plans, and in December a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit refused to step in and prevent Hobby Lobby from being impacted by the mandate.
Under the federal government’s mandate, businesses must cover contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs as part of their health insurance plans. The abortion-causing drugs come under brand names such as Plan B and ella and also are known as emergency contraceptives.
The 10th Circuit said it will expedite oral arguments and will set a date soon.
Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts store, is owned by a Christian family who says the mandate violates their beliefs and their constitutionally protected freedoms. That family, the Greens, also owns Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain that also is part of the suit.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing Hobby Lobby and Mardel.
“Full court review is reserved only for the most serious legal questions,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “This case asks whether the First Amendment protects everyone’s right to religious freedom, or whether it leaves out religious business owners like the Greens.”
Hobby Lobby and Mardel are self-insured and could face millions in fines if a court does not intervene. In January Hobby Lobby announced it had found a way to avoid for “several months” being penalized by the government. The announcement said the company had “discovered a way to shift the plan year for its employee health insurance, thus postponing the effective date of the mandate for several months.” A specific date was not given.
Hobby Lobby is the largest and highest-profile company to file suit against the mandate. The irony for Hobby Lobby is that while its losses have captured national attention, other businesses – smaller and located in other circuit courts – have been winning. Of the 20 for-profit lawsuits that have been acted upon by a federal court, 15 of them have seen opponents of the mandate win and the government lose. Among the winners in court is Tyndale Publishers, which prints Bibles and Christian books. There are more than 50 suits against the mandate. The issue likely, at some point, will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
With more than 500 stores in 41 states, Hobby Lobby’s owners always have made their faith a central part of their business. Their stores play Christian instrumental music and are closed on Sundays. Hobby Lobby contributes to Christian organizations and runs full-page ads in newspapers during the Easter and Christmas seasons with gospel-centered messages.
“These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith, and our family is now being forced to choose between following the laws of the land that we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful,” David Green, Hobby Lobby’s founder and CEO, said in September. “… We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.”
Green said religious liberty is at stake.
“Hobby Lobby has always been a tool for the Lord’s work,” he said. “… For me and my family, charity equals ministry, which equals the gospel of Jesus Christ. … But now our faith is being challenged by the federal government.”
The mandate was announced by the Department of Health and Human Services in August 2011 as part of the health care law championed by President Obama. Although the Supreme Court upheld the health care law in June of 2012, the justices’ ruling did not deal with the religious liberty issues surrounding the abortion/contraceptive mandate. That means the nation’s highest court could yet strike down what has been for religious groups the most controversial part of the law.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)