Supreme Court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Woods

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's June 30 ruling that certain businesses, based on their religious objections, can be exempted from a government requirement to include contraceptives in their employee health insurance coverage means "justice has prevailed," in the words of two U.S. archbishops.

In a news release, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore stated the Supreme Court's decision recognizes "that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business." Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

The court in its 5-4 ruling said that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the two family-run companies that objected to the government mandate that employees be covered for a range of contraceptives, including drugs considered to be abortifacients, are protected from the requirement of the Affordable Care Act under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Activists on both sides of the issue gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court on a hot Washington morning awaiting the decision. When it was announced, supporters hailed it as a religious liberty issue, and opponents called it a setback to women's health care.

Although Catholic leaders and other religious groups hailed the decision as a victory for religious freedom, they also said the issue isn't resolved because the government mandate requires nonprofit organizations such as Catholic charities, hospitals and schools to provide contraceptive coverage.

The USCCB statement of Archbishops Kurtz and Lori noted that the court left open the door about cases currently winding their way through the courts objecting to the government's accommodation that they direct a third party to provide the required contraceptive coverage.

"The court clearly did not decide whether the so-called 'accommodation' violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise," the statement read. "We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well."

The Archdiocese of St. Louis welcomed the decision regarding "the unjust HHS mandate" that required closely held for-profit organizations "to provide abortifacients,sterilizations, and contraceptives in their health plans. Although this decision does not directly impact the archdiocese itself as an entity, we recognize the decision is an important victory for religious liberty as it guarantees employers and business owners of all faiths, including Catholics within the archdiocese, the ability to conduct business in accordance with their beliefs."

The Archdiocese of St. Louis filed suit in 2012 challenging the constitutionality of the mandate, then re-filed it 2013. It awaits a ruling on the case.

In the meantime, the archdiocese stated, "the USCCB and Archdiocese of St. Louis will continue to advocate for comprehensive health care reform to ensure access to life-affirming health care for all, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. We continue to urge Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign comprehensive health care reform legislation that protects religious liberty and conscience rights, that does not use federal funds to pay for elective abortions or plans that cover these procedures, and that treats immigrant workers and their families fairly. The Affordable Care Act, in its current form, does not meet these criteria.

"Until we can secure absolute protections for the faithful to practice their faith in the public sphere as guaranteed in the First Amendment, we cannot and will not surrender our campaign for conscience rights. We will continue to demand religious liberty and protection of our first, most-cherished freedom."

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the religious liberty law firm that represented Hobby Lobby, the family-owned Oklahoma-based retailer, before the Supreme Court, told reporters after the ruling that the court's decision bodes well for similar pending cases of nonprofit organizations.

He noted that the opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito includes a footnote reference to the Little Sisters of the Poor's lawsuit, which he said indicates that the "government accommodation is not here for long."

The Little Sisters of the Poor religious order has asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to extend an injunction blocking enforcement of the federal contraceptive mandate.

The Supreme Court's decision points out how the government has "effectively exempted" some religious nonprofit groups from the contraceptive mandate and that to qualify for the accommodation, such an employer must self-certify as nonprofit religious group with religious objections to contraceptive coverage; the self-certification form triggers the insurance company that administers their health plan to provide the objectionable coverage to their employees.

Catholic and other groups who object to the coverage on moral grounds contend that even with the accommodation, they are still involved in objectionable coverage.

The ninth footnote in Alito's opinion states that "in a separate challenge to this framework for religious nonprofit organizations, the court recently ordered that, pending appeal, the eligible organizations be permitted to opt out of the contraceptive mandate by providing written notification of their objections to the Secretary of HHS, rather than to their insurance issuers or third-party administrators."

Rienzi's take on that footnote is that if the government thinks something is important -- such as the provision of birth-control coverage -- it can provide it and cannot have a "compelling interest" to "crush" groups that object to paying for it.

He said the Hobby Lobby ruling makes it clear how family-operated businesses can operate within the Affordable Care Act and said the court's decision likely will be the "controlling opinion going forth" for nonprofit entities' health care coverage.

John Vile, dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment, called the decision a "genuine win for religious freedom" and for those who wrote the RFRA and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. He said both acts were designed to extend religious freedom beyond the narrow confines the court previously had tried to impose.

Vile told Catholic News Service in an e-mail that if "corporations can be considered persons for purposes of freedom of speech, then it is only appropriate that they be considered persons for purposes of religious freedom."

He also pointed out that even though the court agreed that the government had an "important governmental interest" in protecting the health of women, it had not used the "least restrictive means" in accomplishing this goal because it already had made provisions for providing coverage for women who worked in nonprofit organizations with religious objections and for plans that it grandfathered in without contraceptive coverage.

Vile said he does not agree with the dissenting justices who said the decision had "startling breadth" and instead pointed out that Justice Alito was careful to limit the decision to the facts at hand, and his emphasis on "least restrictive means" provides leeway in cases in which other means of accomplishing governmental objectives are unavailable. 

Missouri RIght to Life president Pam Fichter hailed the ruling, stating that the court "upheld the fundamental right of the American people to exercise their religious freedom

The decision "in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby confirms the principles on which our country was founded," she stated. "The Court's ruling acknowledges that privately owned businesses ... cannot be forced to violate their principles by providing abortifacient drugs through their company's insurance plans.

"Our Constitution protects the right to live our faith peaceably-at church, at home, and in the workplace. The American people won a great victory today."

Tyler McClay, general counsel for the Missouri Catholic Conference called the ruling an "important decision that recognizes and respects the reality of religious practice in the work place. Most people operating closely-held, family businesses in America expect to be able to do so in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs without facing crushing fines and penalties. The U.S. Supreme Court today validated that expectation."

Review staff and Carol Zimmermann of CNS contributed to this story.

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