The Supreme Court next Tuesday will hear oral arguments on whether a business may be required to provide health insurance that covers birth control for employees. Two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., brought separate cases in different courts, but the cases are being heard together at the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is an Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores; Conestoga Wood is a cabinet maker based in Pennsylvania. The business owners claim that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – which provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” – allows a for-profit, secular corporation to deny its employees health insurance coverage for contraceptives. Making the case for women’s rights, Sen. Bernie Sanders joined a group of senators in a friend-of-the-court brief rebutting the businesses’ contention. The senators’ legal brief said the religious freedom law did not extend rights to non-religious, for-profit corporations. They told the Supreme Court that letting a company disobey the health care law would undermine the government’s interest in providing women access to preventive health care, including contraceptive coverage. Furthermore, the Affordable Care Act already contains protections for nonprofit religious organizations who do not wish to provide such coverage.
The brief was submitted to the Supreme Court by Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Benjamin J. Cardin of Maryland, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Harry Reid of Nevada, Sanders of Vermont, Charles E. Schumer of New York, and Ron Wyden of Oregon. All signers were Members of the House or Senate when the religious freedom law was passed in 1993 and they all voted for the law.
The senators asked justices to overturn a lower court ruling that they said “would permit a secular, for-profit corporation’s owners or shareholders to impose their religious beliefs on employees by denying female employees access to preventive health care, including insurance coverage for contraception.
“Congress could not have anticipated, and did not intend, such a broad and unprecedented expansion of [the religious freedom law]. Nor did Congress intend for courts to permit for-profit corporations and their shareholders to use [the law] to deny female employees access to health care benefits to which they are otherwise entitled,” the senators told justices.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a ruling in the case by June.