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Why Hobby Lobby Is This Year's Supreme Court Case To Watch

(UPDATED) Tuesday's Green family appeal has religious liberty, corporate law, and Obamacare contraception all at stake.
Why Hobby Lobby Is This Year's Supreme Court Case To Watch
Image: Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Hobby Lobby founder David Green and Conestoga Wood Specialties President and CEO Anthony Hahn

When Hobby Lobby makes its case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, conservative Christians won't be the only ones paying attention.

After a year and a half of opposing the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandate, the evangelical-owned craft store chain has become shorthand for the corporate fight for religious liberty—one that concerns not only Obamacare critics, or fellow Christians who worry that certain contraception methods are abortifacients, but now, Americans overall.

It's expected to be the most high-profile case the Supreme Court reviews this year. CT can refresh your memory. [Infographics below.]

CNN called Hobby Lobby's oral arguments, scheduled for March 25, a "high-stakes encore" to Obamacare. Left-leaning news site Mother Jones warned readers about the potential "revolutionary outcomes, from upending a century's worth of settled corporate law to opening the floodgates to religious challenges to every possible federal statute to gutting the contraceptive mandate."

Hobby Lobby's case—to be argued along with Mennonite-owned furniture makers Conestoga Wood Specialties—represents the fate of nearly 100 other businesses and non-profits who have filed suit against the contraceptive mandate. (Churches and other houses of worship had been granted an exemption.)

Their legal challenge has generated an outpouring of amicus briefs—filings of relevant opinion and testimony from interested stakeholders who aren't directly involved, such as congressmen, scholars, religious groups, and theologians. With 84 filings, the case represents "among the largest amicus efforts ever," according to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Religion News Service summarizes the two central questions for the Supreme Court to consider:

  • Does Hobby Lobby as a corporation have religious rights protected by the First Amendment?
  • Have those rights been violated under a 20-year-old statute that sets a high bar for government interference of religious freedom?

That statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, prevents the government from substantially burdening a person's free exercise of religion without compelling government interest.

"Some flippantly say 'A business cannot be a Christian' but the truth is, every business is either moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, depending the values they base their business on," said megachurch pastor Rick Warren. "When the government starts coercing businesses to violate their religious, moral, and ethical values, that is a flagrant violation of our Constitution."

As illustrated in this thorough RNS profile of the Hobby Lobby founder, Steve Green—a billionaire, Southern Baptist, and avid Bible-collector—believes his beliefs are indeed part of his company, which is why they carry Christian merchandise and close on Sundays. He won't compromise on his pro-life convictions to run his business, so Hobby Lobby refuses coverage for 4 of the ACA's 20 contraceptive methods, including intrauterine devices and morning-after pills:

Those, the FDA acknowledges, could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. Blocking implantation would "terminate life" says Green. "We won't pay for any abortive products. We believe life begins at conception."

Hobby Lobby opponents argue that the religious liberty cause should not override an individual's rights to a full range of health care options, particularly for women.

The Supreme Court could rule either way. CNN reports that so far "three federal appeals courts around the country have struck down the contraception coverage rule, while two other appeals courts have upheld it. That 'circuit split' made the upcoming Supreme Court review almost certain."

The high court's decision on the case is expected to be announced in June. Two infographics by the Becket Fund are below.

CT previously previewed the top contenders and the core question at stake: Whether for-profit companies have religious rights, via the court's extension of corporate "personhood" in Citizens United. Religion Clause's Howard Friedman told CT this is "one of the most difficult legal questions I've seen."

Appeals courts have disagreed on whether for-profit corporations with religious owners are allowed free exercise of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Seventh Circuit and Tenth Circuit have said yes. But the Sixth Circuit and Third Circuit have said no.

Most of the legal action has been on the for-profit side (47 cases and counting), where—out of the 39 lawsuits decided on the merits of their complaints—33 have secured temporary bans against the mandate's enforcement and 6 have been denied, according to a helpful scorecard kept by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

CT has chronicled the many legal developments regarding the contraceptive mandate, including most recently on the nonprofit side where a court ruled that the mandate splits religion into worship or good works.

Image: Courtesy of the Becket Fund
Image: Courtesy of the Becket Fund

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