Supreme Court rules for Conestoga

5-4 decision supports owners’ religious opposition to ACA contraception mandate

Jun 30, 2014 by and

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a Mennonite-owned cabinet-making business in Pennsylvania cannot be compelled by the Affordable Care Act to provide certain contraceptives in employee health care plans.

The court announced the 5-4 decision June 30, stating some corporations can hold religious objections to some federal laws. The decision, the justices made clear, applies to privately held companies — not vast publicly held corporations, for which the owners’ religious beliefs would be difficult to discern.

The ruling applies only to contraceptives and not procedures such as blood transfusions or vaccinations. Analysts weighed in immediately, noting that by restricting the decision to contraceptives, the court opens the door to challenges from other corporations to other laws that violate the owners’ religious beliefs.

The case was brought by two companies: Hobby Lobby, a chain of 500 stores with more than 13,000 employees owned by the Green family, who are evangelical Christians; and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Lancaster County, Pa.-based company with 950 employees owned by the Hahn family, members of Weaverland Mennonite Conference, an Old Order group.

The business owners sought a religious exemption from the ACA’s requirement that large employers provide insurance that covers a full range of contraceptives, including four that the owners believe can cause abortion. Government lawyers insisted for-profit corporations are not entitled to exercise religious rights.

Combining questions of religious rights, corporate rights, the ACA and abortion, the case was, for many people, the most important the Supreme Court decided this year.

Connecting the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a corporation and not an individual for the first time, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the contraception mandate “clearly imposes a substantial burden” on the owners’ beliefs because the government could provide the coverage in other ways.

“If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions,” he wrote. “And if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.”

All of the court’s female members were in the minority. The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, said the decision “is bound to have untoward effects.”

“Our cosmopolitan nation is made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference,” she said from the bench. “In passing RFRA, Congress did not alter a tradition in which one person’s right to free exercise of her religion must be kept in harmony with the rights of her fellow citizens, and with the common good.”

The Associated Press reported the Obama administration must now find a new way of providing free contraception to women covered by such companies’ insurance plans.

Alito suggested the government could simply pay for pregnancy prevention or offer the accommodation it has made to religious nonprofit organizations, in which the insurer or a third party pays for the birth control.

The New York Times reported that an estimated one-third of Americans are not subject to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate.

Religious groups are exempted, small employees don’t have to offer any health coverage, and some insurance plans that didn’t offer the coverage were grandfathered in.

Contributing: Religion News Service.


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  • Ross Lynn Bender

    Who exactly are the Weaverland Old Order Mennonites? Apparently they have no objections to going to law when it affects the bottom line of their highly profitable businesses (Conestoga Wood employs 1200 in three states) people. Not exactly humble otherworldly simple Mennonites. Nor do they have any religious reservations about their for-profit companies imposing their own religious views on employees. Nor about joining the Republican War on Women.

    I don’t know about their views on unionization, but given the views of Mennonites out in deep red Republican territory, I doubt they have much interest in workers’ rights.

    How far we have come from the simple Anabaptist faith, whose martyrs died so that dominant religious groups could not impose their views on others.

    Ross Lynn Bender
    Philadelphia, PA

    • I have read the original letter from the Lawyers to interested parties and employees of Conestoga Wood (my brother in law works there… and he’s not Old Order). That letter came across very lawyerese and very much in the spirit you describe, Ross.

      However, having lived in the area, listened to the stories from my BIL about the company, his employers, etc., the letter does not jive with the picture that I have received about the owners.

      So, in my mind, I’m wondering: how much of Conestoga’s involvement in the case was actually Conestoga’s specific request… and how much of it was some lawyers seizing on an opportunity?

    • Jeremy S. Martin

      I know some members of the Hahn family, who are owners/employees at Conestoga Wood Specialties. They do not impose their religious views on anyone, including their employees. They treat their employees justly and fairly according to Colossians 4, and very few if any employees want a 3rd party involved like a union. They simply want to run a Christian business demonstrating Christ’s love to employees and customers without sponsoring the war on unborn children. Remember, you may disagree with the Hahns, but please refrain from judging them.
      Jeremy Martin
      Middletown, PA

      • Herbert Reed

        “you may disagree with the Hahns, but please refrain from judging them.”

        I am sure that the Hahns are following their religious beliefs and trying to treat their employees fairly. But they open themselves up to justified criticism when they take a religious stance which is against medical opinion. According to medical opinion, the drugs and devices in question prevent fertilization, not the implantation of a fertilized egg. The Hahns are not being judged for their religious beliefs, but for their behavior in attempting to impose their religious beliefs on their employees, even as their beliefs are are contradicted by medical science. As for being judged, when you file a lawsuit, one opens the door to being judged.

  • James Regier

    …and against Women’s rights. I mean seriously. An employer’s religious beliefs ought not trump those of an employee’s. This is a principle that we Mennonites have operated under for years. Public school teachers have felt justified in refusing to say the Pledge of Allegience, participate in military recruitment and the like. This ruling is troubling if only for all the qualifications that Alito put in his opinion. If rulings are not to be precedent setting, if they are written to define religious conviction exemptions so narrowly–i.e. exemptions for birth control coverage only–then perhaps these are rulings that ought not be made, in all legitimacy.

    I would guess certain folks will point to this ruling as justification to be exempt from military taxes. And more power to them. But I doubt the Supreme Court is THAT supportive of religious freedom.

    • Berry Friesen

      James, the majority and dissenting opinions are both VERY clear that religious objection to payment of taxes is a very different matter and that neither the First Amendment nor the RRFA protects tax objectors. The justices went out of their way to say so.

      You also noted how female employees are harmed by this decision. All assume this harm will be addressed by the Administration as it decides how to provide access to insurance-paid contraception via a “less restrictive alternative” than overriding the Hahn’s conscientious objection to four of the available methods. The main dispute in that regard is whether that alternative will end up being more difficult for women to use than the right provided by the ACA.

      We can’t forget that this case stands in a line that began with Wisconsin v. Yoder, which recognized the First Amendment right of Amish parents to educate their children in their own schools. And yes, that impacted 3rd parties less than this decision, although the exact nature of the impact in this case is still to be determined.

      • James Regier

        And for the reasons you list, you will surely understand why I cannot take this stand for “religious freedom” seriously.

      • Herbert Reed

        I fail to see how this case is anything like Wisconsin v Yoder. That case had to do with the Amish educating their own children in their own schools. This is about the religious rights of an employer vs. that of an employee. It is a very different set of questions, imo.

  • Scott Franciscus

    If I remember my ninth grade civics class, it is the responsibility of the SCOTUS to keep in check the power of the Presidency and of Congress by “checking” it against the Constitution. The responsibility of the SCOTUS is not to pass or expand the laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the Presidency. If there is an issue with the RRFA, then it should be worked through the proper means, Congress. As the RRFA is currently written the SCOTUS correctly made their decision.

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there for the purpose of promoting a political agenda:

    1) War of Women – hardly. in the case of Hobby Lobby they have objected to 4 mandated “contraceptives”. Hobby Lobby already covers 16 of the mandated 20 contraceptives. The moral/religious objections that Hobby Lobby has is to 4 that are abortion related. They do not have a moral/religious objection to birth control. Hobby Lobby has long covered, within their health insurance, birth control. This case is not about limiting access to birth control.

    2) As a side note to this discussion, are you aware that in 2013 Hobby Lobby raised the minimum wage they pay their employees? Full Time employees make $14.00/hour and part-time makes $9.50/hour. In 2012, it was $13.00/hr and $9.00/hr respectively. Unionization and worker’s rights doesn’t seem to be an issue when Hobby Lobby is taking care of their employees.

    3) No one is looking to trump another’s religious views. Rather, the owners of Hobby Lobby (which is 100 percent privately owned) should have their religious views equally validated as the next private person. While Hobby Lobby is a business, it is a family-owned business – not a publicly owned by the state or owned by stock holders.

    This case was always about the overreach of the government in it’s mandates. I am hearing a lot that bosses should not be making bedroom decisions. Then why are there those that are seeking to force bosses pay for those bedroom decisions? The irony is amazing.

    I think we also need to be careful not to impose 21st century political ideology onto the reasons of our Anabaptist martyrs. While I might not have read word for word every account of martyrdom in Martyrs Mirror, I don’t remember reading that they died as a means of political power protest, but rather for their belief in Jesus Christ. But maybe I am taking a too simplistic understanding of their martyrdom.

    • Ross Lynn Bender

      Speaking of unions, on the same day, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to unions by ruling that home health care workers are not really employees.

      Why is this relevant to Mennonites? It means that all the retired Mennonites in those posh Mennonite retirement homes across the country need have less fear that their Hispanic and African-American servants might some day unionize and stand up for better treatment.

      Remember, this right wing court is the one that has declared that “Corporations are people”. Thus far it has meant that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to buy politicians. Now it means that they can have religious beliefs and impose them on their employees.

      Ross Lynn Bender
      Philadelphia, PA

      • Scott Franciscus

        Ross, that just simply isn’t true. The ruling was about forced dues that were being deducted from employee paychecks regardless if the employee wanted it or not. The SCOTUS struck down “agency fees” as unconstitutional. They ruled that in-home health care personal assistants (who most likely are taking care of dependent children or parents) are not public employees. The unions overreached in attempting to force them to pay union dues. The question here is why was the SEIU trying to unionize parents taking care of their children (as is the case of Harris)? She decided to bargain directly, rather than going through the union, yet the union wanted to compel “agency fees”.

        This same court is 1) the court the affirmed Obamacare with a 5-4 vote and 2) the same ruling that has allowed unions to “spend unlimited amounts of money to buy politicians”

        Lastly, nothing is being “imposed” on their employees. Rather, this ruling with Hobby Lobby and the Unions is making sure that the government doesn’t overreach in it’s impositions and making sure that citizens are not forced to subsidize speech that they do not wish to support. This should be celebrated as a victory for religious and personal liberty and freedom. An ideal that as Anabaptists we have historically championed.

    • Herbert Reed

      “This case is not about limiting access to birth control.”

      Only in an Orwellian sense is that true. Of course the decision limits access to birth control. Employers now can refuse to cover certain forms of contraception if the happen to believe that the contraceptive causes abortion – not if in fact they do, they just have to believe that they do. Yes it limits access. It will now be more difficult for a woman to get coverage for certain contraceptives. Access has been limited.

      • Berry Friesen

        We’ll see, Herb.

        The swing vote on the 5-4 decision (Justice Kennedy) explicitly said that providing access to health care (including contraceptives) is “a compelling” public interest that can be impacted by the exercise of religious liberty only if the government has an alternative way of proceeding to meet its objectives, which in this instance Kennedy said the government has.

        So the Obama Administration will promulgate regulations to make sure women impacted by employers who opt out have access to all 20 forms of contraception. Whether that provides access as effectively as the regular ACA mechanism remains to be seen.

        • Herbert Reed

          Whatever “workarounds” may be devised – it is likely that access will be more cumbersome – an extra form to fill out, etc. Whenever that happens there are questions of getting information to people so that they know how to take the extra step. These little red tape impediments never seem like much. But as with some of the voter ID laws – there is a negative effect which often falls disproportionately on individuals already lacking in the ability to fully participate in society for one reason or another. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the employers in the case will cooperate with the workaround. In the case of some of the faith based charities, objections have been raised to this sort of maneuver on covering contraceptives. I agree with the suggestion of some that this is not really about religious freedom or abortion, but rather an attempt to restrict women’s reproductive choices based on a religious objection to contraception. It is hard not to come to that conclusion given the convoluted reasoning of the plaintiffs contrary to medical evidence about drugs and devices which supposedly cause abortions. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was about not having your own religious freedom restricted, not about allowing you to impose your religious beliefs on others even if your religion tells you to do so.

          • Berry Friesen

            Herb, a couple of things.

            I understand the passion you and many others feel about how certain contraceptives have been incorrectly characterized; my daughter is a women’s health practitioner.

            The courts are an arm of the government. When presented with a free-exercise case such as Conestoga Wood, they must decide it without judging the reasonableness of the claimant’s religious views. Otherwise, the court itself would be claiming to have more authority than the claimant’s god, which would itself be an obvious violation of the 1st Amendment. That’s why you see the Court in this case staying away from the “science” question and that’s why it does not penalize Conestoga Wood for the flawed science of its owners.

            Now, as to the burden this puts on others (in this case women), your comment suggests you are unwilling for even a small burden (filling in a form) to be imposed for the sake of protecting the free exercise of someone’s religion. This is the viewpoint of many in this country, at least insofar as the small burden relates to acquiring contraceptives. It reflects a highly assimilated point of view: we as Americans are all the same, we all live by the same rules, we don’t cater to the nutcases out there who want special treatment. And it suggests that popular support for the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment isn’t very strong.

            But it is passing strange for a Mennonite, especially one like yourself who values his heritage, to object to a decision that requires people to fill out a form in order to protect another’s free exercise of religion. Don’t you know that it was an Anabaptist plaintiff (Yoder) who brought the case that became the bright star of free exercise jurisprudence in this country?

          • Stephen Johnson

            Berry-While this issue is about birth control for some I personally feel that when an individual or group of individuals chooses to remove themselves from the liability of their business by incorporating that they are in a sense putting a wall of separation between themselves and their business. A corporation as an entity does not hold religious values so how can it possibly oppose anything. That is my issue with this however I think the lawsuit in general was purely motivated by politics even if Conestoga is sincere in their beliefs.

            The idea of the court determining the reasonableness of a religious value is an interesting one. Is this limited to denominational, congregational, or individual beliefs? It would be a great separate discussion topic.

          • berryfriesen

            Stephen, I agree with you that the law should not recognize the fiction of corporations with religious beliefs. But apparently the court was afraid of boxing itself in with a ruling that would have left clearly religious activities (e.g., kosher butcher) unprotected if occurring within a context other than a sole proprietor form of organization.

            As to the politics of this case, I think the Hahns are sincere. Some of the legal help they received may have been politically motivated, as well as some of the justices who voted for their cause.

            The decision is an expansion of legal protection for religious expression (not just belief). That’s a good thing for the future of religious liberty.

          • Herbert Reed

            Allowing someone to cite religion over accepted medical science opens up a huge can of worms. This is why, I think, the SCOTUS is trying to limit the scope of the ruling to contraception, which imo turns the constitution on its head. For example, I don’t see how they deny the Jehovah’s Witness employer the right to refuse to cover blood transfusions with this precedent. Personally I think the religion trumps science part of this is a fatal flaw in the ruling – it will not stand the test of time and the SCOTUS will eventually reverse itself. As for your other argument – the real question is who does the health care benefit belong to – the employer or the employee. In every other case I am aware of, the health care benefit has always been considered part of the employee compensation, i.e. another form of wages. No one is denying Conestoga the religious right to not use contraceptives themselves – what they should not be able to do is impose their religious beliefs on their employees, if religious belief is not a condition of employment, as it might be for some churches and religious charities, for example. I understand the Wisconsin Amish school case; I do not think it is relevant to the question of employer provided benefits. As for “living by the same rules”, yes, when it comes to civil rights, we certainly should. If that is a “highly assimilated viewpoint”, so be it. It is not just a matter of filling out a form. Putting impediments in the way of basic rights means some people who are not so savvy at negotiating the impediment will be left out.

      • Stephen Johnson

        I would venture to guess this had little to do with birth control and much to do with attacking the ACA.

  • Shari Gehman Nyles

    This ruling hands more power over to the already powerful, which is no surprise for this Court. How would conservatives respond if a company with Islamic beliefs decided to impose its religious values on white, Christian, American employees? It’s beyond troubling to think that the Roberts/Scalia Court is operating under an assumption that Christianity is the semi-official religion of the United States giving it legal protections not allowed to other religions.

  • Jeremy S. Martin

    It is very surprising and disappointing to see Mennonites promoting government power at the expense of religious liberty. Are those in this camp familiar with the history of Pennsylvania and William Penn? In every case in Biblical history, the judges, prophets and apostles were appealing to the people to choose to serve God, not for government to impose their religion on the people. In this specific case, the Administration decreed that every employer must pay for specific abortion drugs. Do we not remember Mennonite history and the persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe for those who did not attend the “proper” state church, or baptize infants? I suggest we look beyond the left/right current political box and remember the importance of first freedoms described in the Pennsylvania charter of 1701 and the US Constitution.
    William Penn was right when he included this paragraph in the charter:
    “BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though
    under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of
    their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship. . . I do hereby grant and
    declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories,
    who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and
    Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under
    the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or
    their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or
    Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place
    or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or
    Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.”

    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pa07.asp

    • Herbert Reed

      What about the employee’s religious liberty? And note – there is disagreement from the medical community that the drugs in question cause abortions. The SCOTUS appears to have endorsed superstition over medical science.

  • Herbert Reed

    For me the question is whose “religious liberty” is going to be protected? In this case the SCOTUS has essentially said that the employer’s religious liberty trumps that of the employee, even though health benefits are essentially compensation for work done. Since when does an employer have the right to dictate how a worker uses his/her wages? What is even worse is that the SCOTUS has redefined “religious liberty” to the point of allowing an exemption for a religious belief even when that belief is contrary to accepted medical opinion as to whether a particular contraceptive is an abortifacient. I fail to see how this decision does not open the door to even more intrusive conditions being set by employers on health care benefits, such as a Jehovah’s Witness employer refusing to cover a blood transfusion. Yes, I know that the SCOTUS majority attempted to restrict the scope of the decision to contraception but the logic of that escapes me.

  • Debra Hope

    18 comments, from 17 men. Sigh.

    • Stephen Johnson

      I would love to hear from more of my sisters. Please encourage them to respond.

  • Berry Friesen

    Herb, your perspective is majoritarian, which is the generally held American point of view these days. But the Bill of Rights is mainly about protecting minorities, such as the Hahns, and even religious views that “rational” people with scientific understanding think to be whacko.

    When those religious views impact others, than the court looks for another way to ameliorate that impact, as it did in Conestoga Wood. If it hadn’t found that alternative, the Hahns would have lost.

    • Herbert Reed

      The Bill of Rights is about protecting everyone’s rights, not just minority religious rights. Aside from religious rights, there is the question of employee rights, which includes the right to compensation for labor. Health benefits are compensation, they belong to the employee, not the employer. Employers cannot dictate how an employee spends their cash wages, why should they be allowed to say how the employees spend their health benefits? The SCOTUS made a fundamental error which I do not believe will withstand the test of time.

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