(Bloomberg) — Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.’s 600 U.S. craft shops close each Sunday, posting a notice that employees are spending the day with their families and at worship. It’s a visible sign that the company is as focused on honoring God as it is on making money.
That dual mission is at the core of an ideological showdown over the Obama administration’s interpretation of the preventive services benefits provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), set for argument before the U.S. Supreme Court next week.
Hobby Lobby, a family- owned business that says it looks to the Bible for guidance, is seeking a religious exemption from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requirement that employers cover birth control as part of employer-sponsored health plans.
Hobby Lobby is asking the court to give for-profit corporations the same religious freedoms as individuals, with potentially sweeping rights to opt out of laws they say are immoral.
“Why as a family, because we’ve incorporated, do I have to give up religious freedoms, which are core to what our nation was founded on?” said Steve Green, the president of the Oklahoma City-based company and son of its founder.
The case comes to a court that four years ago expanded corporate speech rights under the First Amendment in the Citizens United campaign-finance case. The Hobby Lobby case focuses on the First Amendment’s separate guarantee of “free exercise” of religion, along with a 1993 federal religious- rights law.
Critics of Hobby Lobby’s position say religious rights are personal — and impossible to square with the nature of corporations. That’s especially the case given that corporations are designed to limit the legal liability of their owners, said Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
Corporations “are not sentient, they have no soul, and they certainly do not have a relationship with God,” Corbin said.
The justices will hear the Hobby Lobby case alongside a similar dispute involving Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a woodworking business owned by a Mennonite family. The companies’ lawsuits are among at least 47 filed by for-profit businesses opposed to the contraception requirement, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby.
The March 25 argument will take place simultaneously with a lower court’s consideration of a case that may pose a direct challenge to PPACA. In that case, being argued at a federal appeals court a half-mile away in Washington, opponents of the law contend that people who buy insurance on federally run exchanges aren’t eligible for tax credits to cut their premiums.
Hobby Lobby was founded in 1970 by David Green, the son of a Christian minister. David Green is now one of five co-equal owners of the company, along with his wife, Barbara, and their three children. All five have signed statements declaring their religious faith and committing to run the business accordingly.
The company’s religious character can be both subtle and unmistakable. In stores, Christian songs play in instrumental form, recognizable to adherents who know the music though not to other customers, Steve Green says. More visibly, Hobby Lobby buys hundreds of full-page newspaper ads at Christmas and Easter inviting people to “know Jesus as Lord and Savior.”
At the same time, Hobby Lobby is a growing business, one with $3.3 billion in sales last year and ambitions to add 70 stores this year. It has at least 15,000 full-time employees.
The company has long provided health insurance to those employees. Under its plan, Hobby Lobby covers 16 of the 20 federally approved contraceptives. The ones that aren’t included are Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.’s Plan B One-Step, Actavis Plc’s Ella and two types of intrauterine devices.
Steve Green said those four can work as “abortifacients” by preventing a fertilized egg from being implanted in the uterus.