Hobby Lobby case: how will the Supreme Court rule on contraception?

Hobby Lobby execs got the news last week that their case opposing a federal mandate to provide contraception to employees will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case interests me because I am taking a class on intergovernmental relations. In particular, we are scrutinizing the history of federalism in the United States via Supreme Court decisions that have largely shaped the balance of power between the national government and the states.

My Way is one form of contraception available to women. (The Associated Press)

My Way is one form of contraception available to women. (The Associated Press)

While this is more of a private business vs. federal government issue, the decision amounts to an expansion of federal powers. The facts of the case are simple:

Does evangelical-owned Hobby Lobby have to pay for health insurance that includes coverage for contraception, as the president’s health care plan requires? The big issue here is whether the birth control mandate violates federal protections of religious freedom.

The Supreme Court agreed to take the case, and a similar suit brought by a Mennonite-owned cabinet maker.

The conflict arose over what is considered a “preventative benefit.” The Institute of Medicine recommended in July 2011 that contraceptives be included in a suite of preventive benefits for women, alongside coverage for breast feeding and cervical cancer screenings.

So how might the court rule? That will come down to the heart of the dispute, which the Washington Post explains:

Hobby Lobby argues the contraception mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA.

RFRA is a law passed in 1993 that says the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” That law says that, if the government does create that substantial burden, it has to do two things: Prove there’s a really good reason for the burden, and no less burdensome way to achieve the policy goal at hand.

Opponents of the contraceptives mandate argue that the contraceptives mandate is a substantial burden on their religious exercise, and is therefore illegal under RFRA.

“Neither RFRA nor Supreme Court precedent suggests that a for-profit entity is barred from making a religious liberty claim,” Hobby Lobby argued in one brief with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The government counters by claiming the RFRA protections do not apply to for-profit corporations, but rather are intended for private individuals and faith-based institutions.

David Gibson of the Religion News Service explains the arguments on both sides in greater detail.

So there you have it.

Two questions: are contraceptives a “preventative benefit?” and secondly, should Hobby Lobby be required to provide contraception?

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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