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UPDATE: Filings on health care law

UPDATE 7:31 p.m.   The Obama administration on Monday evening filed three documents in the Supreme Court responding to Affordable Care Act petitions.  Aside from renewing its plea for the Court to focus on the Hobby Lobby case (see post below) on the new birth-control mandate, the new filings urged the Court to hold onto the Conestoga Wood case until Hobby Lobby is decided, and urged a denial because of later legal developments in the Autocam case.  It urged the Court to deny review of Liberty University’s new challenge (docket 13-306) to the individual and employer mandates in the Affordable Care Act, arguing that there is no conflict on any of the issues raised in that petition.  These filings complete the government’s responses to the ACA cases now at the Court, and may allow the Court to speed up its consideration of these petitions.


The family-owned Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores told the Supreme Court on Monday that it supports Supreme Court review of a government case on the constitutionality of the birth-control mandate in the new federal health care law.   The issues are “critically important” and the case for review by the Justices “could hardly be clearer,” the brief (found here) argued.

The federal appeals courts are now divided on the constitutional issue.  The Supreme Court has three petitions on the issue so far, and more are expected to be filed soon.  The Hobby Lobby case (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, 13-354) and a case from the Third Circuit (Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, 13-356) are the furthest along in scheduling, so that they could be ready for the Court to consider as soon as next month.  The third case (Autocam Corp. v. Sebelius, 13-482), was just filed last week.

Under the Affordable Care Act mandate at issue, business firms and other employers with more than fifty workers on their payroll must provide a range of reproductive screening services and preventive care, including several birth-control methods or drugs.  The religiously devout family that owns the Hobby Lobby retail chain is opposed to the inclusion in the mandate of drugs or devices that may prevent fetal development at its very beginning.

While many employers operating as explicitly religious institutions are exempted from the mandate, there are no exemptions for profit-making business firms.  Nearly three dozen lawsuits have been filed around the country by business firms run by religiously committed owners challenging the mandate, either under the Constitution or under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).   The Hobby Lobby petition by the Obama administration raises only the RFRA issue.

Hobby Lobby’s owners, in urging the Court to hear the government appeal, said this case was an ideal one for the review, and argued that the issues “need to be settled now by this Court.  The existing conflict [among lower courts] is likely to deepen rapidly, with the same issues pending in some thirty-five other cases around the country.”

The core question in this case, and in the other for-profit employer cases, is whether a firm operating as an income-producing business can “exercise” religious rights.  In the Hobby Lobby case, the Tenth Circuit Court found that such firms are capable of having religious views and expressing them in the way the business is operated.   In the Conestoga Wood Specialties case, the Third Circuit Court ruled just the opposite.

While the federal government always has a strong chance of getting Supreme Court review of its appeals, the fact that the other side in this case has agreed to review will increase that chance.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, UPDATE: Filings on health care law, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 21, 2013, 7:36 PM),