A Lancaster County cabinet maker who says the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on contraception coverage violates his business’ religious rights will have the chance to argue his case before the U.S. Supreme Court next year.
Justices on Tuesday chose an appeal from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. Articles:
The court’s decision to wade into the debate marks the second time in as many years it has agreed to referee an argument over President Obama’s signature legislation.
"The government shouldn’t be able to punish Americans for exercising their fundamental freedoms," said David Cortman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian public-interest law firm expected to argue Conestoga’s case in Washington.
Both the Conestoga appeal and the second case chosen Tuesday, involving Oklahoma-based crafting chain Hobby Lobby, center on a provision in the health-care law that requires employers to offer comprehensive preventative coverage, including contraception, or face significant fines.
Conestoga, a 950-employee firm run by Mennonite Norman Hahn and his family, and Hobby Lobby, which describes itself as a “biblically founded business” with more than 500 stores in 41 states, object, saying the law would all but force them to choose between staying open or violating tenets of their owners’ religions.
The Obama administration has offered some exemptions to churches and religious-based nonprofits including colleges and hospitals but has, so far, drawn the line at for-profit companies.
"We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement Tuesday. "The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women."
In July, the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Conestoga, differentiating between a company and its owners and saying for-profit corporations are inherently secular and “cannot engage in religious exercise.”
However, a month earlier, the justices in the Tenth Circuit, based in Denver, found that the requirement “substantially burdens Hobby Lobby’s … rights under the law.” The Obama administration appealed the ruling this summer and urged the Supreme Court to take up the case.
The opposing rulings, and others like them, made the Conestoga question one justices were likely to take up, said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia expert in the law of religious freedom.
Lower courts across the country have decided roughly 20 similar cases in favor of the objecting companies. At least four more have been decided in the government’s favor.
Even within the Third Circuit, consensus among courts differs. A federal court in Pittsburgh granted an injunction in June allowing Geneva College, a Christian university, and Cranberry, Pa.-based Seneca Hardwood Lumber Co., run by a Catholic family, to bypass the contraception mandate.
And if Conestoga’s arguments sound familiar, there’s good reason, said Charles Proctor III, who represented Conestoga during its earlier hearings. They mirror those that won out in the high-profile Citizens United case in 2010, in which the high court expanded the concept of corporate “personhood” in a ruling acknowledging companies had free speech rights.
"In Citizens United they granted corporations First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, to now deny a corporation religious freedom doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Proctor said in an interview Tuesday.
Oral arguments, which will be heard at once for both cases, will likely be scheduled for spring, with a ruling expected by June.