Everything You Need to Know About the Fight for Religious Freedom at the Supreme Court

COMMENTARY Religious Liberty

Everything You Need to Know About the Fight for Religious Freedom at the Supreme Court

Mar 25, 2014 3 min read

Visiting Fellow, Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging a coercive Obamacare rule from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that forces employers to provide coverage of potentially life-ending drugs and devices — regardless of religious objection.

Two families, the Greens and the Hahns, will be at the high court seeking to preserve their constitutional freedom to continue running their businesses in accordance with their deeply held beliefs. That’s not the idea you’d get from certain media accounts, of course, so here is a Q&A covering the basics of what is at stake.

Who are the families challenging the HHS mandate?

The family of David Green founded Hobby Lobby in 1972, after two years of making frames at their kitchen table and selling arts and crafts out of their garage. What started as a humble enterprise has grown to more than 500 stores in 41 states, employing more than 16,000 individuals. Hobby Lobby stores close on Sundays and are open only 66 hours a week so that their employees can spend more time with their families. The Greens’ Evangelical Christian faith influences not only the way they care for employees but their investment in communities through partnerships with numerous Christian ministries.

Norman and Elizabeth Hahn own Conestoga Wood Specialties, a second-generation business in Lancaster County, Pa. The Hahns’ work is a family affair, as their sons and their families also work at the cabinet-manufacturing business. With 950 employees, the Hahns simply want to continue working and providing employee health insurance according to their Christian Mennonite faith.

What are they suing over?

The Hahns and the Greens are at the Supreme Court fighting for the freedom to continue living out their faith in how they run their business. They simply want to go on providing their employees with generous health-care plans without being forced to provide coverage of drugs and devices that can end the life of a human embryo.

The families brought claims under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law, passed by large bipartisan majorities in 1993, prohibits imposing substantial government burdens on religious exercise unless the government can show it has a compelling interest and does so through the least restrictive means possible. That’s a pretty high bar, and one the government has failed to meet in enforcing the HHS mandate.

What happens if Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood don’t comply with the mandate?

The Greens’ and the Hahns’ businesses could face devastating fines — to the tune of up to $100 per employee per day (which adds up to many millions of dollars a year) — for continuing to provide health insurance that doesn’t include life-ending drugs and devices. If they drop their health plans altogether to avoid the mandate, they’ll still face fines of $2,000 per employee per year under Obamacare.

Aren’t there already religious protections in this mandate?

The religious exemption included in the HHS mandate is one of the narrowest in federal policy. It effectively applies only to formal houses of worship, such as a church or synagogue. After public outcry over the mandate’s coercion of religious organizations, the Obama administration created what it calls an “accommodation” to extend religious-freedom protections. But that so-called compromise applies only to certain religious non-profits and is nothing more than a complicated way of enforcing the mandate against religious charities while pretending not to. Everyone else, including family businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, must comply or face crippling fines.

What is the government’s position?

While claiming the mandate is necessary for women’s health, the Obama administration has exempted the health-care plans of tens of millions of women from the HHS mandate — often for merely political or commercial reasons. But the government is unrelenting in enforcing this mandate against a relatively small number of family businesses that simply want to provide health care without being forced to violate their conscience under threat of heavy fines.

Throughout the litigation over the rule, the Obama administration essentially argued that families such as the Greens and the Hahns lost their right to religious freedom when they went into business to provide for themselves, their families, and their employees.

What’s at stake in these cases?

The challenges posed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood raise fundamental questions about what religious freedom is and whether the government should be able to pick and choose who gets to live out their faith.

This is a debate that every American should care about. You don’t have to agree with the Hahns and Greens to recognize that the government should not be able to force Americans to set aside their deeply held beliefs simply because they go into business to create jobs and serve their communities.

All Americans, whether they’re in their homes, at their place of worship, or running a business or charity, should be free to live according to their convictions.

So this isn’t about taking away birth control?

Absolutely not. All women, including those who work for the Greens and Hahns, remain free to make their own decisions about these drugs and devices — and to purchase or find insurance coverage for them. These families simply ask that the government not force them to participate in those decisions.

When will the Supreme Court make its decision?

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision in these cases by the end of June.

— Sarah Torre is a policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.

Originally appeared in The National Review