Court aids Hobby Lobby's challenge to contraception mandate

Hobby Lobby has requested an injunction that would exempt the company from the mandate while it pursues its constitutional challenge through the courts.

A trial court rejected that request, but the 10th Circuit said Thursday that the lower court's decision was wrong on certain counts. The appeals court's divided ruling was strictly procedural, but was seen as a clear win for Hobby Lobby.

"Today's ruling was the most decisive victory yet against the abortion-pill mandate," The Catholic Association said in a statement. "The number of religious freedom victories against the mandate continues to mount, sending the clearest signal possible to the Obama administration that no employer, no matter where he or she works, should be forced to choose between violating his or her conscience and paying a fine."

The appeals court did not rule on the merits of the birth control mandate, nor did it grant the company an injunction. But it improved Hobby Lobby's chances of winning an injunction once the lower court reconsiders.

"We disagree with the court's reasoning," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom. We are all entitled to our religious beliefs but not to impose those beliefs on others. A business like Hobby Lobby cannot use religion to discriminate by denying women coverage for contraception."

Hobby Lobby's suit against the contraception mandate has an especially high profile because it is seeking an especially broad exemption from the policy.

The mandate requires most employers to cover contraception in their workers' healthcare plans, without charging a copay or deductible. Churches and houses of worship are exempt. 

Religious-affiliated employers, such as Catholic hospitals, do not have to offer or pay for the coverage themselves, but it still must be available through their insurance companies.

The Hobby Lobby suit, though, comes from a nonreligious employer. Some companies — Hobby Lobby is the biggest — say they should be able to opt out of the contraception mandate based on the religious views of the company's owners, even if the business is not affiliated with any religion.