WASHINGTON — Christian-owned craft giant Hobby Lobby will be able to make its appeal against the federal contraception mandate before a full federal panel of nine judges, rather than the usual three.
“Full court review is reserved only for the most serious legal questions,” explained Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a March 29 press release. The Becket Fund is representing the owners of Hobby Lobby in court.
Duncan said that the decision to grant a full nine-judge hearing speaks to the gravity of the issue.
“This case asks whether the First Amendment protects everyone’s right to religious freedom or whether it leaves out religious business owners like the Greens,” he explained.
Hobby Lobby had petitioned for an “en banc” hearing, an appeals hearing before the full bench of nine judges.
“We are grateful that the court granted Hobby Lobby’s petition,” said Duncan.
The retailer is one of well over 100 plaintiffs challenging a mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services to require employers to provide contraception, some abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations.
A narrow religious exemption included in the mandate does not apply to for-profit businesses run by religious individuals.
Since its founding in an Oklahoma City garage in 1972, Hobby Lobby has grown to more than 500 stores in 40 states. Its founder and CEO, David Green, and his family describe themselves as committed Christians who strive to serve God through all their endeavors, including their business.
The Greens donate large amounts of money to charitable causes, maintain a minimum wage that is significantly higher than that required by federal law, and close their stores on Sundays, sacrificing profit to allow their employees to worship and rest.
As Christians, the Greens also object to funding or facilitating any drugs that can cause abortions, including the “morning after” and “week after” pills. Their lawsuit argues that their First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom are being violated through the mandate’s demands.
Both a federal district court and an appeals court initially denied an injunction that would have blocked the mandate from going into effect while Hobby Lobby argued its case.
The courts said that although the Greens express their sincere religious beliefs through their company, they did not feel that those beliefs were directly burdened by the mandate’s requirements.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied the company’s emergency injunction appeal in December, saying that the case did not meet the extreme standard necessary for the Supreme Court to intervene.
Without an injunction, Hobby Lobby was faced with up to $1.3 million per day in fines for violating the mandate, beginning Jan. 1 of this year.
In January, however, the retailer released a statement saying it had found a way to delay the crippling fines by shifting “the plan year for its employee health insurance, thus postponing the effective date of the mandate for several months.”
The company has said that, despite the threat of staggering fines, it will continue fighting to exercise its owners’ religious beliefs in its policies.
In addition to granting a full panel of judges for the appeal, the 10th Circuit also said in its March 29 response to Hobby Lobby’s plea that it will “grant the pending request to expedite oral argument,” thereby accelerating the appeals process.
The court said that a date for the appeals case will be set soon. Arguments are expected to take place in the spring.