AGs want U.S. SC to review, reverse Tenth Circuit's Hobby Lobby ruling

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- California Attorney General Kamala Harris and 10 other state attorneys general filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court this week, asking the court to review whether for-profit businesses can claim religious exemptions from the health care law's contraceptive mandate.

The other states include Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Their brief, filed Monday, urges the nation's high court to hear Kathleen Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and asks the court to overturn a federal appeals court's ruling that would allow two for-profit corporations to avoid full compliance with the law.

"Access to contraceptive services is critical to the health of women and infants; women's economic and social well being; and women's opportunities to participate fully in society," the brief states.

The brief also argues that the lower court's determination that for-profit corporations may assert religious exemptions to certain laws could interfere with enforcement of other important regulations that protect public safety, civil rights, social welfare, housing, employment and public health.

"The freedom of individuals to exercise the religion of their choosing is one of the most important values in our society, as reflected by its enshrinement in the federal Constitution. The federal government's contraceptive coverage regulations under (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) respect that freedom through inclusion of appropriate exemptions, while also advancing the similarly compelling interests in public health and gender equality in access to health care," the brief states.

"The court of appeals' decision would upset that balance and threaten far-reaching impacts on the states beyond the issues presented by this action."

Last month, the federal government decided to take the case filed against it by Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby to the Supreme Court.

In its Sept. 19 petition, the Obama administration points to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act states that the government "shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.

The administration is asking the court to decide that for-profit corporations cannot deny their employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation's owners.

In a response filed Monday, Hobby Lobby said it wants the court to take up its case against the federal government.

The company argues it raises important questions about who can enjoy religious freedom.

Hobby Lobby sued the federal government in September 2012, arguing that the contraceptive mandate would force "religiously-motivated business owners," such as themselves, to "violate their faith under threat of millions of dollars in fines."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit found, in its June 27 opinion, that corporations have free exercise rights and that the requirement in President Barack Obama's health care law that employers provide their workers with birth control coverage "substantially burdens" those rights without a compelling governmental interest.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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