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Conestoga Wood Specialties vs. Affordable Care Act: Who's Right?

The pro-life Hahn family, owners of the kitchen cabinet parts manufacturer, cites religious conviction in objecting to paying for emergency contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Do you think a for-profit company should be able to claim the same religious freedoms as an individual or a church?

Total Votes: 1829

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Posted: Monday, March 24, 2014 4:30 pm | Updated: 4:43 pm, Thu Apr 3, 2014.

Only 108 men and four women have had the privilege of serving as a Supreme Court justice.

They're an elite few, yes. But the big ideas they tackle shouldn't intimidate the rest of us. And that goes for the facts and law involved in Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Kathleen Sebelius.

The challenge for the justices will be weighing the conflicting values of religious liberty and public health.

For a glimpse into how they might achieve a balance, we should pay attention to questions asked at today's oral arguments.

To get ready, here's a look at the background and issues the court is likely to consider.

Sure, you can't don the robe. But with a little help you can begin to think like a Supreme Court justice.

Why did Conestoga Wood sue the federal government?

For-profit Conestoga Wood, based in East Earl, is entirely owned by Norman Hahn and his family. They are conservative Mennonites who believe life begins at conception.

Their convictions clash with the Obama administration's requirement that large employers provide their workers with health plans that cover the 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Four of the methods are emergency contraceptives that some say may destroy a fertilized egg.

The Hahns filed suit because they object to the government forcing them to pay for coverage that violates their religious belief.

What will happen to Conestoga Wood if it loses?

The Hahn family hasn't said what it will do if the Supreme Court sides with the government.

What is known is, if they offer a health plan but refuse to cover emergency contraceptives, the 1,053-employee company would be subject to a fine of $100 per worker per day. That amounts to $105,300 a day, or more than $38 million a year.

Another option is for Conestoga Wood to drop employee health coverage altogether. In that case the annual fine is $2,000 per employee, or $2.1 million for the entire workforce. Workers would have to buy their own coverage.


OUR COVERAGE


Thursday

Reluctant litigants: Hahn family takes its pro-life stance, and Conestoga Wood Specialities, to the Supreme Court


Friday

Praying for the Hahns: How Christians are uniting behind Conestoga Wood Specialties owners in Obamacare fight


Sunday

Women's health advocates say Conestoga Wood Specialties case is a matter of health care, not just religious, liberty


Monday

Religious freedom as seen by Christian businesspeople

The morning-after pill: What science says


Tuesday

Live coverage from the U.S. Supreme Court

Law professors weigh in

The top 5 court precedents

• You, too, can think like a Supreme Court justice


Coverage so far

East Earl cabinetmaker sues over Affordable Care Act's mandate for contraception coverage

Firm gets two-week reprieve from Obamacare

Plain-owned firm loses a round to Obamacare

Conestoga Wood sues again

Conestoga Wood loses a round in federal court

Conestoga Wood appeals to high court

U.S. Supreme Court will hear case

Reader opinion: Weigh in on the case


Key court filings

Opinion of 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals: July 26, 2013

Brief to Supreme Court from Conestoga Wood Specialties: Jan. 10, 2014

Brief to Supreme Court from Solicitor General: Feb. 10, 2014

Reply brief to Supreme Court from Conestoga Wood Specialties: March 12, 2014


Multimedia

Anthony Hahn speaks about the lawsuit


Opinion

Your letters to the editor

What Newspapers Are Saying About Conestoga Wood Case

Gil Smart: Conestoga Wood case isn't about all contraception - or is it?

What happens if the government loses?

The Hahn family won't have to cover emergency contraceptives, and their workers and the workers' dependents will have to pay out-of-pocket for them.

Meanwhile, other for-profit companies whose owners have religious convictions may seek exemptions from health care or other regulations they believe infringe on their beliefs.

That means more lawsuits with courts having to expand this new area of case law.

Didn't the government anticipate that some employers would object to covering contraception?

Actually, it did.

The Obama administration has, in fact, found ways to exempt pro-life churches and faith-based nonprofits, such as hospitals and schools, from the contraception provision.

But the government did not offer a similar exemption to for-profit companies, even those, like Conestoga Wood, that are entirely owned by members of a pro-life faith.

Is that because a for-profit company might seek an exemption just to avoid the cost of contraceptive coverage?

Actually, money isn't the issue. Experts say an employer would see no savings on a health plan lacking contraception coverage.

The government has never suggested that companies are being disingenuous about their motives for wanting an exemption.

Then why doesn't the government just give for-profits like Conestoga Wood an exemption?

Well, let's count the reasons. First, the government notes that the regulation is on Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., not on the individual owners.

It points out that a corporation exists to give its owners certain protections under the law. The government says owners can't claim the corporate shield doesn't exist whenever having it is inconvenient.

"Few norms," it says, "are more deeply ingrained into the fabric of American law than the principle that 'a corporation and its stockholders are deemed separate entities.'"

Second, the government sees a distinction between a church or faith-based institution and a for-profit company engaged in secular commerce.

Third, the government points out that workers may not share an employer's religious belief. The government says it's not fair to grant a company a religious exemption when the result is the employees and their dependents will have to shoulder a health care-related financial burden.

"A commercial employers' ability to freely exercise his religion in the workplace reaches its limit," it says, "when it collides with the rights of his employees."

Fourth, the government warns that a win for Conestoga Wood could open the floodgates to other faith-based objections to medical coverage, ranging from immunizations to blood transfusions. It says the result would be "a patchwork of unpredictably incomplete coverage."

Doesn't the government have a point? Corporations, after all, don't have souls.

Of course, the government has a point, but Conestoga Wood's attorneys are quick to fire back.

They note, for example, that while a corporation doesn't pray and can't be baptized, religious people routinely form corporate bodies to promote their faith. Furthermore, federal law, including the key law governing this case, routinely includes corporation in its definition of "person."

They also say that, for purposes of assessing a burden on religious practice, the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit shouldn't apply.

Conestoga Wood, in response to the argument that their workers' rights and needs are being overlooked, says the mere fact that a regulation benefits a third party is not proof of a compelling need for the regulation.

It adds, "If third-party harm were a trump card against exemptions, it would mean that the harm to religious exercise would always be deemed acceptable, no matter how insignificant the government’s interest or how many alternative means of serving it are available."

So if both sides have good points, are the justices just going to flip a coin?

Who knows what goes on in the Supreme Court's chambers. But dithering justices do have a road map to guide them to a decision. It's called the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it sets out how a judge is to decide whether a law restricts religious freedom.

Under RFRA, the government may, in fact, impose a "substantial burden" on one's religious exercise. But it has to justify the burden.

It tries to do that by first showing that there's a "compelling" need for the law. Then it must show that there's not a less burdensome way on aggrieved believers to achieve the law's ends.

Does the government have a compelling reason for wanting Conestoga Wood to cover emergency contraception?

The government says preventing unintended pregnancies is an important health goal, particularly for women for whom a pregnancy would complicate a health condition.

Conestoga Wood counters that if access to contraception was so important, the government wouldn't have let religious groups and small employers off the hook.

Its brief says the government cannot claim a "paramount" need for the contraception provision when it allows millions of women to go uncovered.

Well, couldn't the government find a way to expand access to contraception provision without burdening religious employers?

Some experts think the court's opinion may hinge on this question.

Attorneys for Conestoga Wood say the government could easily find another way to increase access to contraception. They suggest alternatives such as expanding safety-net programs, offering a tax credit or harnessing the Affordable Care Act's online marketplace.

The government counters that the easiest way to make contraception affordable is to require it as part of an employer's health plan. Other ways, such as those proposed by Conestoga Wood, the government says, will make it harder for women to get contraception.

How strong is Conestoga Wood's case?

Clearly, Conestoga Wood has a reasonable chance of prevailing, or else the Supreme Court would have just let the lower court's ruling against the company stand.

That said, many experts say the case is too close to call. The only consensus seems to be that the court will split.

A decision is expected in June.

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