A federal judge in Oklahoma ruled late Monday that the craft chain Hobby Lobby must comply with the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. The company, which sued the federal government over the mandate in September, does cover contraceptives through its employees’ health insurance plan. But the company does not cover abortifacients Plan B (the “morning after” pill) and Ella (the “week after” pill), based on the convictions of the Green family, the company’s evangelical founders and owners.
“It is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured,” said David Green, Hobby Lobby’s founder and chief executive officer, in a statement. “Therefore we seek to honor God by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.”
The company isn’t quiet about its commitments: It runs ads in newspapers nationwide during Christmas and Easter proclaiming the gospel, closes its stores on Sundays, and has chaplains on staff.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton (a George W. Bush appointee) argued that business regulations trump the owners’ religious beliefs. He described the question of whether religious business owners have conscience protections in regard to their businesses as “largely uncharted waters” and “treacherous terrain.” (Download a PDF of Heaton’s ruling.)
Heaton wrote that the mandate is not a “substantial burden” on the Greens’ religious freedom and thus does not violate their constitutional protections. “The mandate in question applies only to Hobby Lobby and Mardel [a company affiliated with Hobby Lobby], not to its officers or owners,” he wrote. In order for the mandate to be unconstitutional, the burden must “be more direct and personal than has been shown here as to the Greens and their management of nationwide general business corporations.”
Heaton added that corporations do not have religious freedom protections, whatever the owners believe. He said Hobby Lobby did not qualify for protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one law that challengers to the mandate have said it violates, because the company is not a “person.”
The ruling is in discord with three other district-level rulings that said the contraceptive mandate could violate a religious business owner’s religious freedom. All three courts issued preliminary injunctions against the mandate. In July, a U.S. District Court in Colorado ordered a preliminary injunction against the mandate for Hercules Industries, a Catholic-owned business. At the end of October, a U.S. District Court in Michigan ordered a preliminary injunction against the mandate for Weingartz Supply Company, another Catholic-owned business. And just last week, a U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia granted a preliminary injunction to Tyndale House Publishers, a for-profit company that publishes Christian material.
The mandate applies to businesses with more than 50 employees.
Hobby Lobby, with more than 500 stores and more than 13,000 full-time employees, is the largest business to bring a lawsuit against the federal government over the new health insurance law’s contraceptive mandate. If it doesn’t comply, the company said it would face a daily fine of $1.3 million. Without an injunction, the company must provide abortifacients to its employees beginning in January. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing Hobby Lobby, plans to appeal the ruling.