Lawyers for arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby argued again today the company should not be forced to provide employee health insurance that includes abortifacient drugs, something its Christian owners oppose.
The Oklahoma-based company, owned by the Green family, is fighting the government mandate that businesses with more than 50 employees must provide coverage for contraceptive drugs, including the so-called “morning-after” pill.
Although Hobby Lobby is a business, its founders’ faith permeates everything the company does, argued Kyle Duncan, one of the lawyers from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Green family.
The stores are a “profit-making company, yes, but also a ministry,” Duncan said.
Today’s appearance before the full 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals marks the third time the company has made its case in the courts. If it loses this round of its religious liberty fight, it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawyer Alisa Klein, arguing on behalf of the government, said allowing Hobby Lobby to avoid covering contraceptive devices it doesn’t like would in effect impose the Green’s religious beliefs on their employees: “If you make an exemption for the employer, it comes at the expense of the employee.”
It’s the same argument government lawyers have made in other cases, with mixed results. Fourteen for-profit businesses have won temporary injunctions against the mandate on grounds it violates their religious freedom. Only six businesses have lost their cases. But the mixed rulings from across the country virtually guarantee the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hobby Lobby is the first company to have its case heard by a full appeals court.
In addition to for-profit businesses, Christian colleges and nonprofit ministries have also sued to stop the mandate. In all, 60 cases involving 190 plaintiffs are pending against the government.
Hobby Lobby has so far had a tough time selling its claim to an exemption, despite the fact that the company is known for basing its operating procedures on biblical principles. Like other high-profile, Christian-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby remains closed on Sundays and often runs full-page ads in major newspapers to highlight the spiritual meaning of Christmas and Easter.
But a District Court judge ruled against Hobby Lobby last year, saying the question of whether business owners have conscience protections in respect to their secular operations is “largely uncharted waters.” In December, a two-judge panel from the 10th Circuit said Hobby Lobby was not religious enough to earn an exemption to the mandate, which is part of Obamacare. The company immediately requested the full court review, saying it would face material harm without injunctive relief.
If it doesn’t comply with the law, Hobby Lobby faces fines of $1.3 million a day. The law went into effect Jan. 1, but the company restructured its insurance plan to delay compliance until July. The company has about 13,000 full-time employees in 41 states.
“When the government threatens to ruin a family’s business unless they renounce their faith, the pressure placed on them is unmistakable,” Hobby Lobby’s lawyers wrote in a brief filed in the case. “In other words, ‘Your business or your religion’ is just as effective a threat as ‘Your money or your life.’”