On September 12, 2012, a family of evangelical Christian business owners filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), and the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"), against the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury. The plaintiffs, represented by private counsel and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, asked the court for both declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that federal rules adopted pursuant to the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("ACA") violated their sincerely held religious beliefs by requiring them to provide coverage for contraception through their companies' group health insurance plans. Specifically, the plaintiffs objected to the ACA rules requiring them to provide coverage for emergency contraception, which the plaintiffs considered an abortifacient. The plaintiffs did not object to other forms of contraception. Claiming that providing coverage for emergency contraception would both contravene their Christian faith and compel speech contrary to their beliefs, the plaintiffs sought an exemption from the ACA's contraception mandate for themselves and other business owners with similar religious objections.
On October 15, 2012, the District Court (Judge Joe Heaton) denied a group of current members of Congress leave to file an amicus curiae brief arguing for a broad application of RFRA. Judge Heaton found that the interests of the Congressmen coincided wholly with the interests of the plaintiffs, and that additional submissions addressing the application of RFRA were unnecessary.
In their brief opposing the injunction motion, filed October 22, 2012, the defendant Departments argued that the contraception mandate did not substantially burden the plaintiffs' religious liberty rights under RFRA, and that, regardless of the burden's magnitude, the regulations were the least restrictive means of advancing the government's compelling interests in public health and gender equality. The brief further argued that the mandate did not violate the plaintiff's religious freedom because it was a neutral law of general applicability.
On November 19, 2012, the District Court (Judge Heaton) denied the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby did not have a constitutional right to religious freedom, and that the individual plaintiffs were not likely to prevail because the mandate was a neutral law of general applicability that was reasonably related to a legitimate government purpose. The Court further found that indirect financial support of subjectively objectionable conduct was not a substantial burden on the plaintiffs' religious freedom. Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, 870 F. Supp. 2d 1278 (W.D. Okla. 2012).
The plaintiffs appealed the injunction denial to the 10th Circuit. On December 12, 2012, District Court Judge Heaton granted the defendants' joint motion to stay the district court proceedings pending the 10th Circuit appeal. On December 20, 2012, the Court of Appeals (Judge Carlos F. Lucero and Judge David M. Ebel) denied the plaintiffs' motion for an injunction pending appeal on the same grounds as the District Court's injunction denial. Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, 2012 WL 6930302 (10th Cir.).
Following this denial, the plaintiffs applied to the Circuit Justice for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for an injunction pending appellate review. On December 26, 2012, Justice Sotomayor denied this application, finding that the plaintiffs' entitlement to injunctive relief was not indisputably clear. Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, 133 S.Ct. 641 (2012).
On March 29, 2013, the 10th Circuit granted initial and expedited en banc review. That is, the Court decided to hear the case not via ordinary panel process, with rehearing en banc as a subsequent possibility, but rather initially in front of all the circuit's judges. Oral arguments occurred May 23, 2013.
On June 27, 2013, the 10th Circuit, en banc, reversed the District Court's injunction denial, finding that the plaintiffs were entitled to bring RFRA claims; that they had established a likelihood of successfully proving that the contraception mandate substantially burdened their RFRA rights; and that they had demonstrated irreparable harm. The 10th Circuit sent the case back to the District Court, asking the lower court to address two remaining prongs of the injunction inquiry (balance of equities and the effect on the public interest) and to decide whether to grant or deny the plaintiffs' motion for an injunction. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, 723 F.3d 1114, 2013 WL 3216103 (10th Cir. en banc).
The plaintiffs immediately filed an emergency motion asking the District Court to grant a temporary injunction pending the full injunction hearing. The District Court (Judge Heaton) granted this motion on June 28, 2013, followed up by a longer-lasting order on July 19, 2013 WL 3869832. The government sought certiorari review of the 10th Circuit decision in the Supreme Court; cert was granted on November 26, 2013. The Supreme Court consolidated this case with Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius
, a similar case from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed. In 5-4 opinion by Justice Alito, the Court held that the HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate RFRA, when applied to closely-held for-profit corporations. The Court emphasized, however, that alternative methods for meeting the government's asserted interest were available. To quote the syllabus (which summarizes the opinion), "the Government could, e.g., assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers' religious objections. Or it could extend the accommodation that HHS has already established for religious nonprofit organizations to non-profit employers with religious objections to the contraceptive mandate. That accommodation does not impinge on the plaintiffs' religious beliefs that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion and it still serves HHS's stated interests." In addition, the Court insisted that its opinion was narrow: "This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice." Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan (although Breyer and Kagan did not sign on to a few pages of the dissent that argued that for-profit corporations lacked rights under RFRA; they said this issue need not yet be decided). Hannah Swanson - 07/18/2013
Tifani Sadek - 11/28/2013