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Hobby Lobby Lawsuit: LIVE Updates on SCOTUS Decision On Obamacare Birth Control Case

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Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius Shows Majority of Circuit Courts Favor Contraceptive Rule

On Thursday, the Third Circuit denied a for-profit company's motion for injunctive relief against the Obamacare contraception rule in Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius. While a ruling on a motion for injunctive relief is not a ruling on the constitutional merits of the legal challenge, it shows which side the judges are likely to favor in the full appeal.
The Third Circuit is now the third circuit court to deny injunctive relief to a for-profit company that has legally challenged the constitutionality of the contraceptive rule.  The Tenth Circuit in Hobby Lobby and the Sixth Circuit in Autocam Corporation have denied similar motions in the past few months. With the Eighth Circuit in O'Brien and Annex Medical and the Seventh Circuit in Korte and Grote granting motions for injunctive relief pending appeal, Thursday's decision in Conestoga resolves the circuit court split in Obamacare's favor.
Circuit Justice Marjorie Rendell's majority opinion argues that the Plaintiffs, the Mennonite owners of a wood cabinet manufacturing company, are unlikely to suceed in their challenege of the provision of the ACA that requires businesses with 50 or more employees to provide no-cost coverage of contraception in their health insurance plan. 
Interestingly, Circuit Justice Leonard Garth wrote a strongly worded concurring opinion. Justice Garth is known to be a conservative judge, and Supreme Court Justice Alito clerked for Garth in his first job out of law school.
21 cases brought by for-profit companies against the contraceptive rule have been filed in federal courts around the country. 11 of these companies have acquired court-ordered injunctions against the rule from district or circuit courts.

Hobby Lobby to Exploit "Grandfather" Loophole to Deny Employees Birth Control

Representatives from Hobby Lobby have announced they will alter their health care plan's start date to avoid having to provide their employees no-cost insurance coverage of birth control.

Health insurance plans that have not been altered since the Affordable Care Act was passed in March 2010 will not have to comply with the new rules until they are renewed or altered. Hobby Lobby plans to take advantage of the "grandfather clause," postponing updates to their health care plan to avoid having to implement the controversial birth control rule they are fighting in the courts.

Hobby Lobby was denied injunctive relief from the law last month. The chain craft store's attorneys announced the corporation would defy the court ruling, which could cost them as much as $1.3 million a day in fines. Qualifying for an exemption from the birth control rule under the grandfather clause could postpone these penalties for a time.


Hobby Lobby Lawsuit: DOJ Moves to Consolidate with Newland

The DOJ has moved to consolidate oral argument in the Tenth Circuit in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius with Newland v. Sebelius, a similar case filed by a for-profit with religious objections to the birth control rule. In the District Court of Colorado, Newland was the first for-profit organization to receive a preliminary injunction against implementation of the rule. Senior U.S. District Court Judge John L. Kane issued his ruling in July, arguing the threat to the plaintiff's free excercise of religion required a temporary exemption to the law.

By contrast, Hobby Lobby was denied injunctive relief at the district court and circuit court level, and their application for emergency relief was denied by Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor.

The oral argument for both cases will focus on the merits of the plaintiffs' claim that the birth control rule violates their rights under the First Amendment and the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Tenth Circuit has yet to schedule oral argument hearings in either case.

Hobby Lobby Lawsuit: Sotomayor Denies Hobby Lobby Birth Control Injunction

Yesterday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an in-chambers opinion denying Hobby Lobby’s emergency motion for injunction pending appeal.  Sotomayor's opinion did not touch on the merits of the contraception rule challenges, except to say that the proposed harm was not clear enough to justify judicial intervention by the Circuit Justice.

Hobby Lobby may apply to have the full Court review their application, or they may proceed with a trial on the merits back in the district court.


Hobby Lobby Lawsuit: LIVE Updates on SCOTUS Decision On Obamacare Birth Control Case

Picture Credit: churchandstate.org.uk

Last Friday, one of the many court cases against the Obama administration’s contraception rule reached the Supreme Court. After the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Hobby Lobby, a Midwest craft store chain, injunctive relief against the rule set to go into effect on January 1, the store and other plaintiffs filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court. If the Court grants an injunction, only the plaintiffs in this case will be allowed to forgo the law, though lower courts with similar cases are likely to also issue injunctive relief as a result.

The ACA requires employers to provide health insurance plans that cover women’s preventative health care, like contraception and well-woman visits, without charging a co-pay or deductible. While the rule is popular with women’s groups and the general public, 44 lawsuits have been filed by religious organizations and business owners.

Last Monday the Obama administration announced that they would release new guidelines for religious exemptions to the Affordable Health Care Act’s (ACA) contraception rule within the first three months of 2013. While these new guidelines could appease some plaintiffs in these cases, the rules are not likely to change for business like Hobby Lobby, seeing as the government has argued in these cases that corporations do not have a First Amendment right to practice religion.

As this issue make its way to the highest court in the land, here are five things you need to know now about the current legal landscape:

1) The 44 lawsuits against the Obama administration have been filed in federal courts in 18 states. (AL, CO, DC, FL, GA, IL, IN, LA, NE, MI, MN, MO, MS, NY, OH, PA, TN, TX.)

Here's a typical play-by-play of the way these cases are working out. 

First, the plaintiffs file a complaint in their federal district court. A majority of the plaintiffs also filed a motion for preliminary injunction, which askes the court to block the law from going into effect until a ruling on the constitutionality is issued. The government has been filing a motion to dismiss in most cases, claiming that the plaintiffs either lack standing or that the issue is moot. Most courts are ruling on the motions for preliminary injunction first, because these motions are must take into consideration the immediacy of the harm the plaintiffs claim to face. A ruling on these motions also allows the courts to avoid ruling on the merits. If one of the parties does not like the ruling on the motion for preliminary injunction or the motion to dismiss, they will file an appeal to their geographic area's Circuit court.

Nine cases (BelmontWheatonNebraskaO’BrienNewlandHobby LobbyKorte, Autocam, Diocese of Nashville) have been appealed to the Circuit court level (in the 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th and D.C. Circuit courts) over dismissal (Belmont, Wheaton, Nebraska, O’Brien, Diocese of Nashville) or because preliminary injunction was granted (Newland) or denied (Hobby Lobby, Korte, Autocam). The first Circuit Court level oral argument on the merits (not injunctive relief) took place in the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia two weeks ago regarding the now combined cases of Belmont and WheatonHobby Lobby was denied an injunction by the Tenth Circuit Court last Thursday, and it has now become the first case to appeal a decision on this issue to the Supreme Court.

While Justice Sotomayor is the Circuit Justice for this case’s geographic area, she will likely share the decision making on their request for injunctive relief with the entire court.

2) Some cases are challenging the whole contraception rule, while others only object to covering emergency contraception because they believe it is an abortifacient. 

Hobby Lobby, for instance, only objects to emergency contraception. Some of the plaintiffs didn’t realize they covered contraception before the rule was announced, but are suing so that they no longer have to. Wheaton is one such example: the for-profit business O’Brien Industrial Holdings is another.

3) The plaintiffs in these cases are making two kinds of claims.

The first is that the contraception rule violates the First Amendment’s free exercise, free speech, and establishment clauses, and the second is that the contraception rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), although some cases do not make all of these claims.

In order to show that the contraception rule complies with the Free Exercise clause, the government must prove that the law is neutral in terms of religion (does not discriminate on its face by, says, only applying to Jewish employers) and that it is generally applicable. For-profit plaintiffs argue that because there is an exemption for some religious employers (only churches, currently) but not others, the law is not generally applicable.

Plaintiffs that claim the contraception rule violates the Establishment clause of the First Amendment argue that, because some religious employers will be exempt while others will not, the government has set up a system where they must examine evaluate applicants religious beliefs. (Note that the administration has granted an exception to all churches that express a religious objection to contraception, but not to other employers of the same faith.)

The Free Speech claim made by plaintiffs is that by requiring them to provide contraception coverage, the government is requiring organizations to essentially endorse contraception. The government argues that the rule regulates conduct, not speech, and has argued in their briefs that these employers can provide their employees with literature that explains why contraception is against their religious beliefs. The question before the courts is whether the conduct of providing contraceptive coverage is inherently expressive.

RFRA sets up a two prong test for laws. First, laws must not place a substantial burden on religious practice (famous laws or rules that have failed this test include those requiring workers to work on their Sabbath, see Sherbert v. Verner , and requiring compulsory school attendance, see Wisconsin v. Yoder.)

However, if they do create what courts find to be a substantial burden, the laws must serve a compelling state interest and be implemented in the least restrictive way possible.  The government claims that promoting women’s health and equality by providing affordable access to contraception is a compelling state interest; plaintiffs disagree.  The Obama administration has been taking such great pains to outline and then modify the contraception rule for religious employers in order to comply with the “least restrictive means” prong; we will have to wait and see if the courts think they have done enough to ease the burden for religious employers.

4) The lawsuits can be broken up into two categories.

The suits include those filed by religious non-profit organizations (like local Catholic Archdiocese or organizations like “Priests for Life) and religiously affiliated universities (like Geneva College in Pennsylvania or Criswell College in Texas), and those filed by for-profit business run by individuals who are religiously and/or morally opposed to contraception (including Conestoga Wood Specialists, a Mennonite-owned business in Pennsylvania, and Domino’s Farms, a business park owned by the founder of Domino’s Pizza that is the plaintiff in the latest lawsuit filed against the rule). 

In the cases filed by non-profits and religiously affiliated colleges, the government has argued that their complaints are moot because new accommodations will be issued shortly. 

However, in the cases filed by for-profit companies, the government argues that the plaintiffs have no standing to sue because they do not have a right to free practice of religion as defined by the First Amendment. So far, 15 of the 44 cases have been filed by for-profit businesses. Some of these businesses have no explicit religious purpose, like American Pulverizer Corporation in Missouri, while others like Tyndale Publishing Corporation, a Bible publisher in Washington D.C., have obvious ties.

5) While outrage of the administration’s contraception rule burst in February 2012, 26 states have similar laws already on the books.

Some of these laws have been challenged legally, but none of them have been struck down through the courts. Two additional states require employers to at least offer the option of contraception coverage. However, of these states, 20 outline religious exemptions to contraception coverage, to varying degrees.

A ruling from the Supreme Court granting injunctive relief to the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby may not end the debate. Because they lawsuits are brought by two dramatically different sets of parties, and because there are a variety of claims being made in each case, many more of these lawsuits are likely to find their way to our highest court. Keep your eyes out for more updates on this issue in the courts.