Commentary Contraception

Vajazzling for Jesus: Hobby Lobby Aims a Glue Gun at the Birth Control Benefit

Imani Gandy

Barbara and David Green, the founders of Hobby Lobby, have filed suit over the Affordable Care Act birth control benefit, claiming it infringes on the religious freedom of a company they say was built on Christian values, though the company's health insurance policies have to date covered birth control.

Yet another lawsuit has been filed by an organization looking to deny its female employees access to healthcare, except this time it isn’t a Catholic church, school, or charity— it’s Hobby Lobby, a popular arts & crafts retail chain.

Hobby Lobby, which touts itself as a “Christian-owned-and-operated” business filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma challenging the provision under the Affordability Care Act which requires all insurance policies to cover preventive healthcare services for women, including contraception, without co-pay. Hobby Lobby is the first non-Catholic business to complain about the birth control benefit.

According to a press release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (yes, the same Becket Fund that represented Wheaton College in its failed lawsuit regarding the birth control benefit—it seems the Religious Powerhouse Law Firm that Could has carved out a nice niche for itself suing the government over the birth control benefit)—Hobby Lobby’s ability to provide Popsicle sticks and glue to the public at low-low prices will be hindered if the Big Bad Government forces it to provide insurance for slut pills to loose women:

“By being required to make a choice between sacrificing our faith or paying millions of dollars in fines, we essentially must choose which poison pill to swallow,” said David Green, Hobby Lobby CEO and founder. “We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate.”

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“Washington politicians cannot force families to abandon their faith just to earn a living,” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Every American, including family business owners like the Greens, should be free to live and do business according to their religious beliefs.”

“It is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured,” said Green. “Therefore we seek to honor God by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles. The conflict for me is that our family is being forced to choose between following the laws of the country that we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful and have supported our family and thousands of our employees and their families.”

David and Barbara Green

David and Barbara Green

Hobby Lobby’s complaint prattles on for pages about how deeply religious are the Greens (the founders of the arts and crafts outfit). For example, Hobby Lobby is closed on Sundays. They close their stores at 8 p.m. so Hobby Lobby employees have time to get home to their families before their kids go to bed at 8:30. The Greens pipe only Christian music throughout their stores. They don’t sell any icky Halloween costumes or racy greeting cards. They have an on-call chaplain. The Greens takes out full-page newspaper ads on Christmas, Easter, and Fourth of July (Fourth of July?) to proclaim the glory of the Lord (no really, what is so religious about Fourth of July?). The Greens believe in paying their 13,240 employees who work in 514 stores across 41 states a living wage (apparently, that’s an exclusively Christian concept). The Greens signed a Giving Pledge which requires them to donate money to various charities and ministries (again, apparently being charitable is exclusively a Christian concept.) One time, the Greens even refused to let a liquor store take over their lease, presumably because alcohol leads to slutty sex and the degradation of Western civilization as we know it.

The Greens believe that “God has blessed them so that they might bless others” (by refusing Hobby Lobby’s female employees access to healthcare—I guess God really does work in mysterious ways) and if you don’t believe them, just read Hobby Lobby’s statement of purpose!

Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.

Offering our customers an exception selection and value.

Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.

Providing a return on the owners’ investment, sharing the Lord’s blessing with our employees, and investing in our communities.

Who needs healthcare? You are blessed with savings, ladies! And isn’t that enough? Besides, everybody knows that Jesus loved a white sale.

In short, Hobby Lobby has got its bedazzlers all fired up for Jesus — except when it comes to actually making sure that its insurance policies didn’t already cover what it falsely calls “abortion-inducing drugs.” Like Wheaton College, Hobby Lobby’s claimed religious fervor is belied by its failure to perfectly adhere to its purported religious tenets.

Oops!

Recently after learning about the nationally prominent HHS mandate controversy, Hobby Lobby re-examined its insurance policies to ensure they continued to be consistent with its faith. During that re-examination, Hobby Lobby discovered that the formulary for its prescription drug policy included two drugs—Plan B and Ella— that could cause an abortion. Coverage of these drugs was not included knowingly or deliberately by the Green family. Such coverage is out of step with the rest of Hobby Lobby’s policies, which explicitly exclude abortion-causing contraceptive devices and pregnancy-termination drugs. Hobby Lobby therefore immediately excluded the inconsistent drugs from its policies.”

As with Wheaton College, it seems that Hobby Lobby saw fit to ramp up its religious fervor only when it became politically expedient to do so. As such, Hobby Lobby’s complaints about religious freedom ring as hollow as they do false.

And, as with Wheaton College and the Hercules Industries lawsuit in Colorado, Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit takes “Corporations are people, my friend” a bit too far. Hobby Lobby is not a sentient being.  It is not capable of exercising religious freedom. Certainly the founders are, but that is not what’s being argued. Hobby Lobby is projecting personal and individual rights on to a corporation, and in so doing, deny personal and individual rights of actual people.

This has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything about controlling women’s bodies. Full stop.

Sign the UltraViolet petition telling Hobby Lobby to drop their suit and stay out of their employees’ personal health care decisions and check out some creations from crafty petition supporters on this fun tumblr.

Analysis Law and Policy

Religious Nonprofits Press Supreme Court for Full Exemption From Birth Control Benefit

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated nonprofits to work out a solution to the challenges to the Affordable Care Act's birth control benefit. Not surprisingly, the religiously affiliated nonprofits refuse to do so.

In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, the lead case challenging the Obama administration’s process for accommodating religious objections to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit. It was apparent then that the remaining eight justices were deadlocked as to whether the process did enough to protect the religious objections of the nursing home operators and university administrators who had launched this latest round of lawsuits.

Hoping to avoid a split decision—which would subject some religiously affiliated nonprofits to penalties if they failed to follow the accommodation process and not others, depending on their appellate court circuit —the justices ordered the government and the religious objectors to try and find a solution both sides could work with and present it to the court via briefing in April. Well, the nonprofits and the Obama administration have filed that first round of briefing. And if the Roberts Court thought the religious objectors were interested in any sort of real solution to the problems posed in their lawsuits, it was mistaken. The negotiating position for the religiously affiliated challengers remains: full exemption from the requirement or bust.

In its order asking for supplemental briefing, the Roberts Court asked parties on both sides to address whether “contraceptive coverage may be obtained by petitioners’ employees through petitioners’ insurance companies, but in a way that does not require any involvement of petitioners beyond their own decision to provide health insurance without contraceptive coverage to their employees.” According to the nonprofits, “[t]he answer to that question is clear and simple: Yes.”

If only it were that clear and that simple.

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In the remaining 20-plus pages of the nonprofits’ brief, their lawyers set out a variety of options that could, they say, provide seamless contraception coverage while preventing the nonprofits from in any way “facilitating” the sin of providing health insurance plans that include contraception. But the thing is, none of those options are actually accommodations to the ACA’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans cover contraception at no additional cost or co-pay.

One of the religious objectors’ solutions, for example, is to have the government directly require insurance companies to create entirely new and separate contraception-only plans. The companies would then contact plan beneficiaries directly with information about the policy and how to enroll. These separate plans, objectors offer, could take the form of individual insurance policies or of group health plans sponsored by the government.

In other words, one option is for the government to come up with an entirely different regulatory scheme for dealing with contraception altogether. That scheme would apply to religiously affiliated nonprofits and presumably the secular for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby that petitioned the Roberts Court for the very same accommodation now regarded by objectors as too onerous for compliance.

The fact this is one option offered up by the religiously affiliated nonprofits should come as no surprise. It’s right out of the anti-choice playbook with regard to insurance coverage for abortion. As states set up their own insurance exchanges during the implementation of the ACA, anti-choice politicians were quick to put restrictions on the kinds of coverage for abortion that insurance companies could offer in individual or employer-sponsored plans. So far, 10 states ban abortion coverage generally, while 25 ban abortion coverage in their exchanges. In other words, if you happen to live in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, or Utah, you cannot purchase a health insurance plan that covers abortion. At all. Including through your employer. Meanwhile, states like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—just to name a few—prevent comprehensive health insurance plans that cover abortion from being sold on their state exchanges.

Do we really think that if this “contraception insurance” plan offered by the religiously affiliated institutions were to become the “solution” to these legal challenges, the result would look any different than it has for insurance coverage for abortion? Hypothetically, broad contraceptive coverage could end across the country, with many states banning the coverage altogether. This, of course, is the exact scenario the Supreme Court is hoping to avoid.

All of the objectors’ “solutions” are, in fact, just other ways of granting exemptions from the birth control benefit. In other words, they seem to be saying, if and when religiously affiliated hospitals, nursing homes, and day care centers can be treated under the law the same way as churches, synagogues, and mosques, then the lawsuits will stop.

That doesn’t sound so much like a compromise as it does a threat.

The Obama administration has until April 20 to respond directly to the petitioners’ arguments. It has already filed its own briefing arguing the process as it stands completely accommodates any religious objections in a way that balances the government’s compelling interest in promoting nondiscriminatory health insurance coverage for employees while respecting the beliefs of those who see contraception as sin.

But perhaps most importantly, the government’s brief argues that any additional tinkering with the accommodation process, rather than a ruling on the merits by the Roberts Court that the current process is sufficient, will only result in many more years of litigation. And it’s a point the petitioners pretty much concede by failing to offer up any workable compromise at all.

Analysis Law and Policy

Everything You Need to Know for the Supreme Court Birth Control Case

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Supreme Court is set to hear the second direct challenge to the Affordable Care Act's birth control benefit Wednesday. Here's what to look out for during oral arguments.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on March 23 in Zubik v. Burwell, the second direct challenge to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This time, the plaintiffs are religiously affiliated businesses like universities, hospitals, and nursing homes: nonprofits that serve the general population, but have a corporate affiliation to a faith group. Those organizations argue that, like churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship, they should be fully exempt from the law’s requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans cover contraception as preventive care. The cases are part of conservatives’ longstanding attacks on the Affordable Care Act generally, and the birth control benefit specifically—objections to which began as soon as President Obama signed the ACA into law. 

There’s a lot on the line with these cases. Here are the key points law attorneys will be battling over during this week’s arguments, and why they matter.

First, Some Background 

A nonprofit claiming a religious objection to the birth control benefit has two ways to participate in the “accommodation process” and opt out of complying with the law. It can mail a short self-certification form to its health insurance company or third-party administrator, depending on the type of insurance it carries, declaring that the organization is a religiously affiliated nonprofit that “opposes providing coverage for some or all of any contraceptive services that would otherwise be required to be covered.” The nonprofit can also provide similar notice, along with the name and contact information of its insurer or third-party administrator, directly to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

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Once either of those two things happens, the federal government will step in and direct insurance coverage for contraception as needed. The employer has nothing more to do with the process at all.

The plaintiffs in Zubik v. Burwell argue that taking either action “triggers” or “facilitates” the ability of their employees to get contraceptive coverage elsewhere. That, the organizations argue, makes them complicit in what they believe to be a sinful act: supporting contraception. They say such an act violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Unlike in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the 2014 case that asked whether secular, for-profit businesses should also have the right to pursue a religious exemption from the birth control benefit, the Roberts Court in Zubik v. Burwell will try to answer the question of whether completing the paperwork required to obtain that religious exemption is itself a substantial burden on religious liberty. If the plaintiffs win in Zubik, it could not only spell the end of the ACA’s birth control benefit; it could further open the door to launching wide-scale religiously based objections to civil rights protections.

So, let’s get into it.

How Badly Does the Government Want to Keep This Fight Up?

The conservative majority ruled in Hobby Lobby that secular, for-profit companies could have access to the accommodation process now being challenged by conservatives in Zubik. In that decision, the Court “presumed without deciding” that the contraception benefit advances compelling government interests, a necessary requirement for laws being challenged in RFRA cases.

A presumption is not the same thing as a ruling, however, and has no value as precedent for future cases, including Zubik.

In Hobby Lobby, Kennedy stated in his controlling concurrence the benefit furthers “a compelling [government] interest in the health of female employees”; the four liberals agreed with the sentiment, though Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, took a much stronger stance in its favor. If Kennedy changes his mind in Zubik, he’s going to have to explain why.

Compelling government interest is only one part of the equation, however. To successfully defend the benefit, the Obama administration is also going to have to show that it is narrowly tailored to further that compelling government interest. In Hobby Lobby, Kennedy presumed that the very fact that the benefit has an accommodation process and religious exemptions shows that it is narrowly tailored.

Again, this is a presumption on Kennedy’s part. The Court did not rule that the benefit is narrowly tailored in Hobby Lobby, so it is not bound by that finding in Zubik. In terms of presumptions, though, it was a pretty big one, on which Kennedy hung much of the rest of his concurrence.

But if there is a prong of the analysis conservatives feel they stand a chance of winning, it is clearly this “narrowly tailored” one. They argue that if providing contraception coverage is so important to the federal government, it should just provide that coverage directly and not involve employers at all. Because the Court never definitively ruled in Hobby Lobby that the benefit is narrowly tailored, presenting a specific alternative in the form of direct coverage for contraception is a smart tactical move by the challengers.

Kennedy’s opinion in Hobby Lobby suggests he won’t bite. But considering, too, the earlier interim orders by the Roberts Court preventing the administration from enforcing penalties against nonprofits for not complying with the accommodation process, any open question presents a way for conservatives to take a whack at the benefit. And if they do so successfully, the Obama administration is going to have to decide if it wants to amend the benefit yet again to try and appease their objections, provide the contraception itself directly through some as-yet-undescribed accommodation-to-the-accommodation, or give up on the coverage all together.

Which option do you think conservatives are gunning for?

It’s Not Just Any Burden

In addition to answering the “compelling government interest” and “narrowly tailored” questions, the Court in Zubik will have to address the matter of “substantial burdens.”

RFRA’s provisions don’t apply to simply any burden on religious rights. They apply only to substantial burdens on religious rights. The nonprofits claiming a RFRA violation here insist that the question of whether or not a law places a substantial burden on religious rights is a subjective one for the religious objector to answer, not an objective one for the courts. As soon as an objector says a law-created burden counts as substantial, they argue, it is substantial—as long as the objector is sincere in that religious belief.

The federal courts largely have rejected this line of argument, and for good reason. If accepted, it would provide an enormous loophole for businesses to seek accommodations to other civil rights requirements, like not discriminating in pay on the basis of gender, or not refusing to work as a photographer at same-sex weddings. But before Hobby Lobby, federal courts largely had rejected claims that secular, for-profit businesses could even raise religious objections to the birth control benefit—and look how that turned out. In addition, at least one federal court is willing to consider organizations’ moral objections to the benefit as well as religious ones, threatening to render RFRA entirely meaningless except as a weapon for conservatives to use to try and thwart civil rights advancements.

The Women Justices Going in Hard for the Benefit

Like we saw earlier this month in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedthaving women on the bench makes a difference in the tone and tenor of the questions when reproductive rights are before the Court. The birth control cases have been no different.

In Hobby Lobby, Justice Ginsburg made it clear that if the conservative male justices were going to “presume without deciding” the government’s compelling interest in advancing contraception coverage, she was ready for whenever the question arose again with proof of the public good contraceptive access advances.

Writing for the dissenters, Ginsburg emphasized that “the Government has shown that the [benefit] furthers compelling interests in public health and women’s well-being. Those interests are concrete, specific, and demonstrated by a wealth of empirical evidence.” Ginsburg then provided a list of the myriad of benefits women derive from contraception access.

Just days after the Court issued its decision in Hobby Lobby, it ruled Wheaton College did not have to comply with the very accommodation process it had just extended to for-profits, in one of the first religious objector cases to land before the Court. It was a temporary ruling while the underlying litigation progressed, but produced a blistering dissent.

“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the dissent, joined by all three female justices. “Not so today. After expressly relying on the availability of the religious-nonprofit accommodation to hold that the contraceptive coverage requirement violates RFRA as applied to closely held for-profit corporations, the Court now, as the dissent in Hobby Lobby feared it might, retreats from that position,” wrote Sotomayor. “This action evinces disregard for even the newest of this Court’s precedents and undermines confidence in this institution.”

Sotomayor’s dissent reveals a lot about the split among the justices in Hobby Lobby. Much of Kennedy’s controlling opinion in Hobby Lobby was about bridging the gap between the conservative wing of the Court—willing to open the floodgates for nearly all types of corporations to pose religious objections to regulatory actions—and the dissenting liberal justices—who, rightly, saw the arguments in Hobby Lobby as a ruse for conservatives to expand their attacks on all forms of civil rights protections. Kennedy tried to assure the liberal justices it was a narrow decision. His decision to side with the conservatives a few days later in Wheaton College betrayed that assurance, as Sotomayor’s dissent makes clear.

With the Court now split 4 to 4, the tension along the fault line between the ruling in Hobby Lobby and the Court’s retreat in Wheaton College will likely be palpable in Zubik. The women on the Court, along with Justice Stephen Breyer, will keep the pressure on Kennedy to stand by his analysis in Hobby Lobby; the conservative justices will no doubt pressure him as well, leaning hard on his discomfort with government intrusions into religious belief, actual or perceived.

Will Kennedy listen to those directly affected by the challenges to the birth control benefit? Or will he buy the specious arguments made by conservative employers: that their religious rights include the right to block their students and employees from accessing contraception coverage under the law?

The Court likely won’t rule until this summer. With the battle to replace the late Justice Scalia only heating up, the possibility of a 4-4 split in Zubik is real. If the Court deadlocks, there will be no definitive ruling on the birth control benefit. Nor will there be any answers at all to the broader questions of whether contraceptive coverage furthers government interest, and the limit, if any, to how far conservatives are willing to stretch RFRA to try and stymie civil rights progress. Such a split would leave in place the appellate court rulings, which have almost unanimously supported the Obama administration and the accommodation process. Practically speaking, it would mean that, eventually, these cases would find their way before the Court again, when it has a full bench of nine members and can issue a definitive ruling.

There is also the possibility that the Court rules 5 to 3 in favor of the Obama administration and the accommodation process. As Kennedy’s opinion in Hobby Lobby demonstrates, he is quite capable of distinguishing real government intrusions into religious beliefs from imaginary ones.

Will the oral arguments offer any insight here? Maybe. But only if Kennedy tips his hand.