Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that employers must provide their employees with insurance that contains coverage for abortion-inducing and contraceptive drugs. Many employers, including the Catholic Church, contested the mandate on the grounds that it violated their religious beliefs.
Traditionally, religious exemptions were allowed for such controversial laws. Accommodations for religious believers are required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Obama Administration’s rule included a narrow exemption for churches, but not other religious organizations. Bishop David Zubik noted that the exemption could not even have been applied to Jesus and his disciples.
As dissent against the rule grew, President Obama announced a unilateral compromise in February 2012. As Examiner reported at the time, the compromise would still require religious groups to cover the abortion-inducing drugs in their insurance plans, but they would not be charged for them. Instead, the president would force insurance companies to provide the coverage at no cost to the religious groups. Presumably, the cost would be spread among other nonreligious insureds. There was no relief for private businesses who had moral objections to the mandate.
Several businesses filed suit against the mandate. In a June 2013 ruling, a judge issued a temporary injunction against government enforcement of the mandate for the Hobby Lobby, a company owned by evangelical Christians. According to Fox News, the company’s insurance provides 16 forms of birth control, but its owners oppose birth control methods that can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, such as an intrauterine device or forms of emergency contraception, because they believe that life begins at conception.
The company had argued that the government’s action was a violation of the freedom of religion and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the Wall St. Journal the act, passed in 1993 with only three nays and signed into law by President Clinton, requires that any “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion be “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and be the “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.
The injunction would apply until the 10th circuit federal appeals court could rule on the merits of the case. It also gave the government until Oct. 1 to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. On Sept. 19, the Obama Administration asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Hobby Lobby decision according to Reuters.
In a separate case, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group, also filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Sept. 19 in a similar case. Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Mennonite-owned business in Pennsylvania, had filed a suit similar to that of the Hobby Lobby. A three judge panel of the third circuit federal appeals court ruled against Conestoga in July and denied the company an appeal to the full court. The ruling subjects the company to fines of $3 million per month if they do not comply with the mandate to provide their employees with abortion pills and contraceptives.
Reuters notes that because federal appeals courts are split on the issue, the Supreme Court is likely to take up at least one of the cases. If the high court does hear a case on the issue, a ruling would be expected during the current term which starts in October and ends in June 2014. In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. In upholding the law, the Court opened a host of other issues, including the question of religious freedom for employers. Fox News notes that there are 63 other cases challenging the mandate, 34 of which involve for-profit businesses.
Originally published on Elections Examiner