U.S. Supreme Court to hear landmark HHS cases

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.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”