Supreme Court To Hear Controversial Contraception Cases

The Supreme Court has announced that it will hear two major cases involving disputes over insurance coverage for contraceptives mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius are both suits requesting an exemption from the ACA mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees on the basis of religious objection by the owners. However, the Supreme Court has declined to review the Liberty University case, which constitutionally challenges the ACA’s mandate that employers provide affordable health insurance for their workers or face a penalty.

Hobby Lobby. The owners of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts-and-crafts stores, believe that human life begins at conception and decided to exclude from its group health insurance coverage for contraceptives that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus, namely intrauterine devices (IUDs), Plan B (the morning after pill), and Ella (the week after pill). They brought suit against the government alleging that the contraceptive mandate violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which states that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it is the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.

The Tenth Circuit ruled that for-profit corporations could deny contraceptive coverage to employees, even if otherwise entitled by federal law, on the basis of religious objections by the individuals controlling corporation. The government requested review by the Supreme Court, arguing that the decision by the Tenth Circuit conflicts with recent decisions of other appeals courts and that religious exemptions are not available to for-profit corporations.

Conestoga Wood Specialties. Conestoga Wood Specialties, a secular, for-profit corporation, was previously denied an injunction preventing enforcement of the contraceptive mandate. The company, owned by a Mennonite family, objected to Plan B and Ella. In its decision, the Third Circuit stated that the Free Exercise Clause protects religious freedom of individuals from government interference. However, secular corporations, which do not pray, worship, observe sacraments, or engage in other religious activity, are not entitled to Free Exercise Clause protection, and the rights of the owners do not pass through to the corporation. Conestoga petitioned for certiorari.

Following the announcement from the Supreme Court, the White House released a statement, which said, “We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree.” The statement referenced the exceptions and accommodations offered under the contraceptive mandate and concluded, “These steps protect both women’s health and religious beliefs, and seek to ensure that women and families—not their bosses or corporate CEOs—can make personal health decisions based on their needs and their budgets.”