OKLAHOMA CITY — The federal government is urging a federal judge to deny a Hobby Lobby Stores request to block enforcement of a new health care law that requires employers to cover insurance costs for morning-after pill and the week-after pill.
The arts and crafts supply chain filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City last month, alleging the mandate is unconstitutional and will force the company's owners "to violate their deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines, penalties and lawsuits." Failure to cover the drugs in Hobby Lobby's health insurance plan could lead to fines of up to $1.3 million a day, according to the company.
The Oklahoma City-based chain requested an injunction to prohibit the law's enforcement. But government attorneys claim Hobby Lobby cannot claim to exercise religion to avoid laws designed to regulate commercial activity.
"Hobby Lobby is a for-profit, secular employer, and a secular entity by definition does not exercise religion," the government said. It says a corporation and its owners are separate entities and Hobby Lobby's owners, the Green family, cannot eliminate the legal separation to impose their religious beliefs on the company and its employees.
The government's response also says granting an injunction "would permit for-profit, secular corporations and their owners to become laws unto themselves."
Hobby Lobby is free to discourage the use of contraceptives, the government said, but an employee's health care choices remain his or her own.
An attorney for Hobby Lobby said the government claims businesspersons have no constitutional right to freedom of religion and that its arguments "are legally very weak."
"The government repeats its old line: you give up your religious freedom when you go into business. That's a startling and disturbing claim for our government to make," said Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby.
The morning-after pill prevents ovulation or fertilization. In medical terms, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg attaches itself to the wall of the uterus. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it can reduce a woman's chances of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent.
But critics of the contraceptive say it is the equivalent of an abortion pill because it can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.
The lawsuit states the Green family's religious beliefs "forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices." The family also objects to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices that the lawsuit alleges can destroy an embryo by preventing it from implanting in the wall of a woman's uterus.
Windham reiterated that Hobby Lobby doesn't object to all forms of birth control, only "drugs that might cause abortions."
A hearing on the injunction is scheduled Nov. 1 before U.S District Judge Joe Heaton.