OKLAHOMA CITY (ABP)—A federal judge ruled Nov. 19 that the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby cannot be exempted from providing emergency contraceptives in their group health plan on religious grounds.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton in Oklahoma City denied an injunction blocking enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010, which requires employers to provide coverage free of cost for preventive services including “morning after” birth-control pills and intra-uterine devices.
Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green, a Southern Baptist who belongs to Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla., and other members of the Green family objected to the Health and Human Services mandate to provide coverage for what they view as abortion-inducing drugs as a violation of their religious liberty.
Judge Heaton ruled that the Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion applies to individuals and not corporations. While the HHS mandate exempts certain religious organizations, Hobby Lobby is a for-profit, secular corporation that does not meet the law’s definition of a “religious employer” eligible for the safe-harbor provision.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Greens and Hobby Lobby in the lawsuit, pledged to immediately appeal the ruling. “Every American, including family business owners like the Greens, should be free to live and do business according to their religious beliefs,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund.
The judge said the question of whether the Greens as individuals can establish a free-exercise case over requirements imposed on general business corporations is less defined than their right to sue as a corporation, but they did not meet a legal standard requiring “a probability of success” to warrant a preliminary injunction.
If Hobby Lobby, which operates 514 arts and crafts stores in 41 states with 13,240 full-time employees, fails to provide mandated coverage beginning Jan. 1, the company faces fines of up to $1.3 million dollars per day, the lawsuit claims.
The case is one of 40 lawsuits challenging health-care reform commonly known as Obamacare. Some, including East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University and Louisiana College, don’t qualify as religious employers because they hire non-Baptists and serve a purpose larger than the inculcation of religious values.
Tyndale House Publishers won a legal battle Nov. 16, when a judge in the District of Columbia granted an injunction protecting the Christian publishing company in Carol Stream, Ill., from the contraceptive mandate. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said the government failed to demonstrate a “compelling interest” for substantially burdening the company’s religious freedom.