By Lisa Keen
Keen News Service
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases next week that test the degree to which employers may use their personal religious beliefs to deny certain health coverage for employees. Neither case involves any LGBT-related health coverage, but the decisions in both may affect whether employers will be able to cite religious beliefs to deny such services as alternative insemination and gender reassignment.
The cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood v. HHS, involve employers asserting religious beliefs as grounds for denying health insurance coverage for birth control. Both take issue with the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby challenges the ACA implementing regulations that require employer health coverage plans provide women on their plans with the “full range” of “contraceptive methods.” Those regulations also authorize an exemption for “religious employer” and “religious nonprofit organizations that have religious objections to providing coverage for some or all contraceptive services.”
“A religious employer,” noted HHS’s brief to the Supreme Court, “is defined as a non-profit organization described in the Internal Revenue Code provision that refers to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, conventions or associations of churches, and the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.”
Hobby Lobby Stores and Mardel are two stores challenging the regulations. Hobby Lobby is a national chain of arts and craft supply stores. Mardel is an affiliated chain of Christian bookstores. Both stores are owned by five people (referred to as The Greens) who excluded contraceptive coverage from the health plans for their combined 13,372 employees, saying contraception goes against their religious belief that life begins “when sperm fertilizes an egg.”
The Hobby Lobby-Mardel owners filed the lawsuit, arguing that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion” unless the need to do so addresses a “compelling governmental interest” and is applied in the “least restrictive” way.
The 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled for the Hobby Lobby-Mardel, saying they do count, under the Restoration Act, as “persons exercising religion” and that requiring them to provide contraceptive coverage does “compromise their religious beliefs.”
HHS is appealing, saying the beliefs held by the owners of the two companies do not justify an exemption for the companies to a “generally applicable law that regulates only those corporations and not their individual owners.”