The fate of religious freedom for Americans, especially business owners, could hang in the balance when the U.S. Supreme Court convenes March 25.
The justices will hear oral arguments that day in challenges by two family owned corporations to the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide abortion-causing drugs for their workers. Hobby Lobby, a nationwide retail chain based in Oklahoma City, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania business, contend the federal regulation violates their owners’ consciences and a 1993 law protecting religious liberty.
Religious freedom advocates predict the Supreme Court’s decision will be far-reaching.
The high court’s opinion “will determine the next 100 years of church/state jurisprudence,” said Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Joshua Hawley, a lawyer assisting Hobby Lobby, described it as “a landmark case.”
“It has major significance for religious liberty” and “for what constitutional rights business owners can claim,” said Hawley, a member of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s legal team and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.
Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, explained to Baptist Press the consequences for not only the Green family, the evangelicals who own Hobby Lobby, and the Hahns, the pro-life Mennonite family that owns Conestoga Wood, but other people who seek to exercise their religious beliefs.
“If the Hahn and Green families lose, the door would be open to allow the government to force people of faith to pay massive fines threatening jobs and health coverage just simply because they are choosing not to violate their faith and conscience,” Bowman told BP in an email interview.
“If the Hahn and Green families win, it will protect religious liberty as promised in the Constitution and American law, and people of faith will not be subject to massive fines just because they don’t want to help destroy human life.”
The arguments at the Supreme Court will arrive after more than two and a half years of protests by pro-life and religious freedom advocates. In implementing the 2010 health-care reform law, the Department of Health and Human Services announced in August 2011 a proposed rule requiring employers to pay for coverage of contraceptives, including ones that can induce abortions. Objections to the regulation failed to produce either a retraction from HHS or adequate conscience protections requested by religious liberty proponents.
More than 300 parties — some nonprofit organizations and some for-profit corporations — have combined to file 94 lawsuits against HHS in the meantime, according to the Becket Fund. The consolidated case the justices will hear March 25 involves for-profit businesses. The nonprofit cases have yet to work their way up to the high court.
While some conscientious objectors to the HHS rule oppose underwriting all contraceptives, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood protest paying only for abortion-causing drugs. Federal appeals courts reached different conclusions last year in the lawsuits. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled for the federal government in Conestoga Wood’s challenge, while the 10th Circuit Court in Denver sided with Hobby Lobby.
The principle involved in the case is rooted in theology and America’s founding, Moore said.
“The government doesn’t grant us religious liberty; God does,” he told Baptist Press in a written statement. “The government is to recognize that God-given natural right for all persons to freely exercise their religious convictions.
“What’s at stake is the heritage our forefathers bought with their blood,” Moore said. “More than that, what’s at stake is the truth that God alone, and not Caesar, is Lord of the conscience.”
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SOURCE: Baptist Press