WASHINGTON (BP)—The U.S. Supreme Court contemplated the right of business owners to exercise their religious beliefs in the face of a government decree upon their companies during oral arguments in a case that is expected to have a long-lasting impact.
On March 25, the justices heard lawyers for the Obama administration and two corporations debate the constitutionality of the federal government’s abortion/contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide abortion-causing drugs and devices for their workers. Hobby Lobby, the nationwide retail chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania business, contend the federal regulation violates their owners’ consciences and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law protecting religious liberty.
The three female justices—Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—challenged Paul Clement, arguing for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, in the first half of the 90 minutes of arguments, while Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia seemed most suspicious of the government’s position in questioning Solicitor General
Advocates for the corporations said some of the justices seemed particularly concerned the government position would support an abortion requirement for families and businesses. They expressed optimism after the arguments.
“We’re hopeful that the court will end up in the right place and protect religious liberty here, and they had an awful lot of difficult questions for the government,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented Hobby Lobby.
“I won’t make guesses, but it felt like a good day,” Rienzi told Baptist Press outside the court building. “It felt like they asked really good questions, and we’re happy with it.”
Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told BP his organization is hopeful the high court will continue to give religious liberty the “high level of deference” it has had in the past.
“I’m hopeful. I’m a Christian, and I’m hopeful,” said Bowman, whose organization has represented Conestoga Wood.
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president expressed optimism for the supporters of the abortion/contraception mandate.
“It was a wonderful day I think for women, and I really believe that this court understood that women have the right to make their own decisions about their health care and their birth control, and it’s not their bosses’ decision,” Cecile Richards told reporters afterward.
Supporters of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood have said religious free exercise for Americans is in the balance as the Supreme Court ponders its decision, which is expected to be issued before its term ends in late June or early July.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), has described it as “the most important religious liberty case in a generation. The decision “will set the tone for the next hundred years of church/state jurisprudence in this country,” he said.
“If the federal government can force organizations and businesses to pave over their own consciences, to choose between being believers and being citizens, what will stop the government from imposing its will on anyone’s conscience next?
“As Christians, soul liberty is about more than political principle for us,” Moore said. “We believe, as our Lord commands, that we should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. The conscience does not bear the image of Caesar, and cannot be swept into the federal treasury by government fiat.”
The justices heard arguments about the mandate after more than 21⁄2 years of protests by pro-life and religious freedom advocates.
The 10th Circuit case is Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, while the Third Circuit case is Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius.
On March 25, religious liberty advocates rallied outside the court building in support of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, but a much larger group of mandate backers that included abortion rights supporters also gathered to voice their views.
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