US Supreme Court hears religious freedom argument against Obamacare's birth control mandate

Hobby Lobby owners the Green Family claiming that mandated coverage for certain birth control violates their religious freedom rightsAP

Three American civil activist groups yesterday petitioned the US Supreme Court to nullify the Obamacare rules forcing employers to pay for health insurance that covers birth control for women.

The American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), the Thomas More Society, and the American Centre for Law and Justice (ACLJ), all filed briefs on behalf of Hobby Lobby, a multi-state retail chain of arts and crafts suppliers.

The ACLJ and the Thomas More Society are also supporting Conestoga Wood, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of wooden doors and components for kitchen, bath and furniture.

The objection of both companies is based upon the owners' Christian belief that human life begins at conception.

Because certain female oral contraceptives can terminate a child in extremely early developmental stages, the companies do not want to be forced to pay for medicine that they believe murders children.

This conflicts with the rules set forth in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the legislation that makes up Obamacare.

These rules mandate employers to provide certain levels of health insurance to all their employees. These levels are specifically defined and include provision of birth control.

The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, provides a self-funded health insurance plan for its employees.

Sixteen female contraceptive pills are included in the plan, but it objects to the cover of four forms of contraception that prevent implantation.

These are one known as RU-486, which according to the ACRU brief "can terminate a pregnancy by chemical poisoning of the baby in the womb". The others are "Plan B", otherwise known as the morning after pill, and two intrauterine devices that prevent an embryo from implanting in the womb, resulting in death of the embryo.

If Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood fail to meet the health insurance requirements, both companies could face substantial fines.

In the case of Hobby Lobby, the ACRU brief provides the exact statistics: "[Hobby Lobby faces] fines of $100 a day for each of its 13,000 employees, or at least $1.3 million per day or almost $475 million per year."

At the heart of the case is whether religious freedom applies to individuals engaged in corporate commercial activity. All three of these briefs insist that it must, in order for religious freedom to be meaningful.

"In order to protect the religious freedom of Americans, the Supreme Court must declare this mandate unconstitutional," said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ .

"The [Obamacare] mandate requires a company or its owner to acquire a health insurance product even if it violates their religious beliefs. Such a measure not only violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, but federal law as well."

The brief from the ACLJ states that the mandate is "a very real and palpable injury" to many business owners, and that it "substantially burdens their religious exercise".

"Whether this country will continue to preserve the dignity of conscience and robustly protect religious freedom in the future largely depends on how this Court rules in the cases at bar," the ACLJ brief contends.

"If the government is permitted to conscript citizens through their businesses to pay for and provide drugs and services to which they are religiously and steadfastly opposed in violation of their conscience, as the government does through the Mandate, the liberties that our forefathers struggled to secure will be significantly diminished."

Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Society, called upon the Supreme Court to uphold religious freedom.

"We hope that the Justices will honour and safeguard the fundamental religious liberties of American citizens to engage in the free exercise of their religious beliefs, not only in their houses of worship, but also in their day to day lives, in business as well as at home," he said.

"Americans must not be compelled to put aside their religious beliefs and values as a pre-condition to their entering into the sphere of commerce and making a living for themselves and their families."

The ACRU brief highlights a decision from the 10th Circuit court in its defence of those objecting to the mandate. Quoting the case's judgement, they argue that the government provided "no principled reason why an individual who uses the corporate form in a business must thereby sacrifice the right to the free exercise of religion".

They further argue that Hobby Lobby's refusal to provide abortive birth control is protected, not only under the US Constitution's First Amendment statement that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", but also under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

"Congress enacted RFRA after more than a century of jurisprudence recognizing that corporations exercise a broad range of constitutional rights," the ACRU brief states.

"That is why corporations have long been treated as 'persons' under the Equal Protection Clause [and] the Due Process Clause."

"The government ... has failed to offer any compelling interest that would justify the particular substantial burden on religious liberty in this case.

"There is no showing of how allowing ... exemptions from four of the 20 contraceptive drugs and devices required by the contraceptive coverage mandate would adversely affect any compelling interest.

"Nor is there any showing that the contraceptive coverage mandate is the least restrictive means of serving any such compelling interest."

The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear spoken arguments in the cases involving the Obamacare mandate on March 25.