The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Nov. 26 to take up two of the many cases challenging the Health and Human Services mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius.
The two companies argue that their employee insurance plans should not be forced to cover potentially life-terminating drugs that violate their religious convictions. Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family, devout Evangelical Christians; and Conestoga Wood Specialties by the Hahn family, who are Mennonite.
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court’s review of these cases highlights the importance of this conflict between the federal government and people seeking to practice their faith in daily life,” Archbishop Lori wrote in a Nov. 26 statement. “We pray that the Supreme Court will find that the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protect everyone’s right to religious freedom.”
The bishops have been encouraged by advances in the lower federal courts in cases involving family-owned companies as well as nonprofit religious organizations.
Last week, a federal court handed the Pennsylvania dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie a legal victory when U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab ruled their legal challenge to the HHS mandate was likely to succeed on the merits, and granted their petition for a temporary injunction. The hearing included testimony from Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, as well as videotaped testimony from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and former president of the USCCB, as reported by the National Catholic Register.
Schwab’s ruling stated that the administration had failed to meet criteria outlined in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which asks the government to identify a compelling state interest to justify laws that constrain the free exercise of religion.
In July, Hobby Lobby was granted a preliminary injunction by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals preventing the government from enforcing the HHS mandate, however the claim of Conestoga Wood Specialties was rejected by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The Green family took an unusual step of joining the government in asking the high court to review the case, despite the victory, according to their attorney.
“This is a major step for the Greens and their family businesses in an important fight for Americans’ religious liberty,” according to Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby. The Becket Fund is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.
“My family and I are encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide our case,” wrote David Green, in a statement. “This legal challenge has always remained about one thing and one thing only: the right of our family businesses to live out our sincere and deeply held religious convictions as guaranteed by the law and the Constitution. Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law.”
The Supreme Court cases involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties will be combined for arguments, estimated to start in late March. A decision is expected by late June. There are currently 84 lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate including Little Sisters of the Poor, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network and Ave Maria University. The Supreme Court did not announce whether it would take up any of the additional HHS mandate cases also seeking a hearing.