WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals in two legal challenges to the Health and Human Services’ mandate that ask the justices to decide whether constitutional and statutory protections for religious freedom apply to businesses.

On Nov. 26, the high court said it would hear appeals in lawsuits filed by two Christian families: the Green family, Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, a large craft-store chain, and the Hahn family, the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania company that makes cabinets.

Both families argue that the HHS mandate, which requires virtually all private employers to provide co-pay-free contraception, including abortion-inducing drugs, in their employee health insurance forces them to cover services that violate their religious beliefs.

The decision had been expected since July, after split appellate level rulings prompted the Obama administration to petition the high court to resolve the dispute. The justices will likely hear oral arguments in March and issue a decision by late June, and that action will affect 42 other legal challenges to the law filed by for-profit employers.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious freedom, applauded the news, noting that Church leaders have consistently defended the free exercise of all employers, whether they run Catholic charities or for-profit family businesses.

"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," said Archbishop Lori 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," stated the archbishop.

He thanked all the plaintiffs who filed legal challenges to the HHS mandate "for their courageous actions in seeking religious liberty in courts around the country."

The news marked the latest chapter in the widening confrontation between the White House and more than 80 plaintiffs representing both closely held family businesses and religious employers, who argue that the mandate violates constitutional and statutory protections guaranteed under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

John Kennedy, the CEO of Autocam, who has also filed a legal challenge to the mandate, expressed relief that the court would take up the appeals, and he underscored the burdens the federal law placed on business owners like himself who oppose the provision of such services on moral grounds.

"The HHS mandate forces our family to choose between violating the teachings of our faith, canceling our benefits or paying $16 million in fines that would result in the closure of the company," said Kennedy in a statement.

"Because of our Catholic beliefs, we work tirelessly to treat our employees well and provide them with award-winning health-care benefits. If the mandate stands, we will be forced to make drastic and unwanted changes to our coverage that will place a tremendous burden on our employees and their families." 

The legal battle has united pro-life and religious-freedom activists and inspired the collaboration of religious leaders across all faiths.

"The Supreme Court’s consideration of the Hobby Lobby case is the most important religious-liberty question in recent years," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement.

"We cannot accept the theology lesson that the government has sought to teach us: that religion is merely a matter of what happens during the scheduled times of our services and is left there in the foyer during the rest of the week," wrote Moore. "Our religious convictions aren’t reduced to mere opinions we hide in our hearts and in our hymns. Our religious convictions inform the way we live."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a pro-life leader in the House, issued a statement that attacked "President Obama’s use of the coercive power of the state to force people of faith and people of conscience to violate their fundamental convictions or suffer severe penalty."

But the White House defended the constitutionality of the federal law — authorized under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare — in a statement released after the high court agreed to hear the appeals.

"The health-care law puts women and families in control of their health care by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth control, free of charge," read the statement.

"We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree."

The White House statement echoed the administration’s past efforts to reframe the dispute as an issue of reproductive rights.

"As a general matter, our policy is designed to ensure that health-care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor. The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women."

As before, the White House noted that it had exempted or provided an "accommodation" for religious employers that opposed the mandate, but it offered no sign that it was prepared to reassess its policy of requiring virtually all private business owners to comply with the mandate.

Matt Bowman, legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the public interest group representing Conestoga Wood Specialties, rejected the suggestion that for-profit business owners should be forced to comply with laws that violate their deeply held beliefs.

"Two cases will present the court with a broad diversity of ways families practice their faith when they try to earn their living in daily life, from Mennonites making board cabinets to a family that has built a chain of crafts stores in many states," Bowman told the Register.

He argued that the government had wrongly sought to define what should be treated as religious behavior, and he disputed the White House’s suggestion that Conestoga and Hobby Lobby sought to control the health-care decisions of their employees.

"The only dictators here are the dictators among the federal bureaucrats who decide what faith is and who can practice it. They then use that to impose an anti-life agenda on Americans," said Bowman.

 

Consolidating Cases

The high court’s decision to consolidate both appeals in oral arguments before the justices did not surprise legal experts. As a result, Matt Bowman and his public interest group will join forces in court with Kyle Duncan, a counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who is representing Hobby Lobby.

Bowman confirmed that "the attorneys for both religious families will be working together. Because both families are advancing the same position, that religious freedom belongs to all Americans, including families trying to earn a living."

Meanwhile, experts are debating whether a court decision favoring for-profit HHS plaintiffs would likely signal the outcome for legal challenges filed by nonprofit employers, including EWTN. The Register is a service of EWTN.

"If the court limits its ruling to the questions of whether for-profit corporations count as ‘persons’ within the meaning of RFRA, [and] whether imposing the mandate upon the corporation ‘substantially burdens’ the owners’ exercise of religion, then there would be no significant connection to the nonprofit cases," said Gerard Bradley, an expert on the Constitution at the University of Notre Dame Law School.

"There would be a crucial connection if the court goes further and establishes authoritatively that the mandate is — or is not — the ‘least restrictive means’ of achieving a ‘compelling’ government interest," said Bradley. "But I think that the court will limit itself to the first set of questions."

A secondary legal debate centers on the likely impact of the high court’s controversial 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which found that the First Amendment prohibits government restrictions on corporations’ political donations, which were treated as a form of "political speech."

That ruling has since raised questions about whether similar reasoning might lead the justices to affirm free-exercise rights for corporations.

Douglas Laycock, an expert on religious-freedom issues at the University of Virginia Law School, told the Register: "Citizens United may play a role, but I don’t think it will play a dominant role. Corporations have some constitutional rights and not others; free speech is not the same thing as free exercise of religion or RFRA."