DENVER - In the most prominent challenge of its kind, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. asked a federal appeals court Thursday for an exemption from part of the federal health care law that requires it to offer employees health coverage that includes access to the morning-after pill.
The Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts chain argued that businesses -- not just the currently exempted religious groups -- should be allowed to seek exception from that section of the health law if it violates their religious beliefs.
The arguments Thursday centered on the Green family, founders of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and a sister company, Christian booksellers Mardel Inc. An eight-judge panel peppered both sides with questions about whether the contraceptives mandate is an undue burden on the Greens' religious belief.
The Greens contend that emergency contraception is tantamount to abortion because it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. They also object to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices.
Hobby Lobby's lawyer argued that the Greens shouldn't face fines for not complying with mandatory contraceptive coverage simply because their business makes a profit. The stores are a "profit-making company, yes, but also a ministry," Kyle Duncan argued.
Duncan cited the Citizens United campaign-finance decision that said corporations have constitutional protections.
"We don't say, well, a corporation can't exercise a right because it's in corporate form," Duncan said.
"Is religion the kind of right can only be exercised by a natural person? Well, the question nearly answers itself. ... It's not a purely personal right."
Hobby Lobby is one of more than 30 businesses in multiple states that are challenging the contraception mandate. Hobby Lobby is the most prominent company making the claim.
A lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice argued that allowing for-profit corporations to exempt themselves from requirements that violate their religious beliefs would be in effect allowing the business to impose its religious beliefs on employees.
"If you make an exemption for the employer, it comes at the expense of the employee," said Alisa Klein, who argued the government's case in a similar contraceptives mandate appeal heard Wednesday in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Klein talked about an imaginary Hobby Lobby employee who is told by her doctor she needs a type of intrauterine contraceptive that she is entitled to having covered under the new health care law. But because of her employers' religion, "the next sentence would be, unfortunately you have to pay $500 to $900," Klein argued.
She also compared the Hobby Lobby claim to arguments from pacifists that they shouldn't owe taxes.
"This is much more like a taxpayer saying, `I don't want to pay into the general treasury because I can identify a subset of government spending that violates my religious belief,"' Klein said.
The 10th Circuit in Denver opted to hear the case before eight active judges, not the typical three-judge panel, indicating the case's importance.
Hobby Lobby calls itself a "biblically founded business" and is closed on Sundays. Founded in 1972, the company now operates more than 500 stores in 41 states and employs more than 13,000 full-time employees who are eligible for health insurance.
The 10th Circuit judges gave no indication when they'd make a decision in the Hobby Lobby case.