A US family business’s fight against the inclusion of emergency contraceptives in its healthcare insurance policies could set a precedent for family and non-family firms alike, according to a reproductive health policy expert, by implying a corporation has the same religious freedoms as an individual.
This week, Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Stores will argue before the Supreme Court that it should not have to provide the emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) or intrauterine device (IUD) for any of its 15,000 employees – due to the religious beliefs of the Green family, which wholly owns the firm.
The retail chain, which provides arts and crafts supplies, was founded by David Green in 1972 and, according to Forbes, had revenues of $3.3 billion (€2.2 billion) in 2013.
Since 2011, companies with more than 50 employees have been required to provide contraceptive care for employees under the Affordable Care Act, which is often derisively termed Obamacare.
Due to its evangelical Christian beliefs, the Green family, which also owns a chain of Christian bookshops, is opposed to any type of contraception that takes effect after fertilisation – which is the case for the ECP, also called the morning after pill, and the IUD.
It first applied to the federal government for an injunction to be exempt from the mandate in September 2012, arguing the family’s beliefs prohibited it from participating in or supporting “abortion-causing drugs and devices”.
The Supreme Court rejected the application, prompting Hobby Lobby to sue the US government, which resulted it being granted a temporary injunction exempting it from the mandate by a district court in July 2013 – the case has now returned to the Supreme Court, which is standard procedure when two judges make different rulings on the same issue.
Sharon Levin, director of federal reproductive health policy of the National Women's Law Center, who is today campaigning outside the Supreme Court, told CampdenFB: "I think the situation here is not the situation of it being a family-owned business, the issue is that a corporation of any kind is arguing it should be able to impose its religious beliefs on its employees."
While the Hobby Lobby case centres around a family business, Levin said the case could set a precedent for listed companies whereby controlling shareholders could try and impose their religious beliefs on the business's management and healthcare policies, and opt out of laws designed to protect their employees.
"They could allow employers to deny other healthcare benefits, for example HIV treatment or it could even allow employers to opt out of complying with the anti-discrimination laws," she said.
Last year the Arizona legislature passed a bill that allowed businesses to refuse to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – something Arizona's governor eventually vetoed following public outcry.
Levin said it is difficult to determine what decision the Supreme Court might come to, but based on precedents thought it would rule against Hobby Lobby.
The company's case rests on it being able to prove that the mandate contravenes the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which aims to block laws being created that would prevent a person freely exercising their religion.
The government's case argues a profit-making entity cannot invoke the same laws that protect the religious freedoms of individuals.
Hobby Lobby is not the only family business challenging the mandate in the Supreme Court – Pennsylvania-based furniture makers Conestoga Wood Specialities, owned by the Mennonite Hahn family, has lodged a similar appeal, which will be heard concurrently with the Hobby Lobby case. Both cases are likely to be decided by the end of June.