Conestoga Wood Specialties wins in Supreme Court religious freedom appeal

06.30.14 | Bob Price

The conservative Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties reacted with applause and prayer Monday after the Supreme Court upheld their religious objection to covering emergency contraception.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court said the federal government can find another way to cover Conestoga Wood's 1,053 workers.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said because the Obama administration allowed faith-based nonprofits to avoid the mandate, it can do the same "when the owners of for-profit corporations have similar religious objections."

Here is the link to the opinion

The ruling means the East Earl-based company will avoid fines of $100 per worker per day, or more than $38 million a year. But the company's workers will have to pay out-of-pocket for the morning-after pill or other emergency contraception until the government provides another way to offer free coverage.

Company founder Norman Hahn, company CEO Anthony Hahn and about 20 others applauded and uttered, "Thank you, Lord," when the ruling was announced, said attorney Randall Wenger, part of Conestoga Wood's legal team.

The Hahns and others gathered in a corporate conference room and watched online moment-to-moment reports from SCOTUSblog.com.

"Eventually the whole group of us stopped and prayed," Wenger said. "I felt I was on hallowed ground."

The Hahns declined media requests for interviews, but Anthony Hahn thanked supporters in a statement emailed to reporters.

"We wholeheartedly affirm what the Supreme Court made clear today — that Americans don't have to surrender their freedom when they open a family business," Hahn said. "All Americans, including family business owners, must be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of government punishment."

The Hahns oppose abortion on religious grounds and liken the morning-after pill to abortion.

The case was more closely associated with Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores. The Supreme Court consolidated Hobby Lobby's case with Conestoga Wood.

Other large, family-owned Lancaster County companies shared the Hahns concern about the mandate and watched the case closely for how it might affect their businesses.

"As I said at the beginning of this lawsuit, this effort wasn't just for Conestoga. We took this stand for others as well," Hahn said.

Alito noted that the government not only exempted religious organizations from the birth control mandate but also exempted companies with fewer than 50 workers and certain employers with so-called "grandfathered" health plans.

All told, Alito wrote, tens of millions of Americans are not covered under the mandate.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield."

"Religious organizations," Ginsburg wrote, "exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations."

Under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, the government may not substantially burden a person's religious freedom if a less restrictive alternative is available. Under the law, a corporation is considered a person.

In this case, the Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act's mandate on closely-held companies whose owners object to emergency contraception was too restrictive and alternatives exist.

"Least restrictive to whom?" asked Maureen Powers, chief executive officer of YWCA Lancaster. This ruling, she said, is “certainly restrictive" to women who have a need for emergency contraception.

"I just find it incredible that a business has a right over the right of the person to be covered by her own country’s laws," she said. "This is particularly disturbing because they’re not even right in what they believe about emergency contraception."

The owners of Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby believe that emergency birth control, including the morning-after pill and copper intrauterine devices, destroy human life. Medical experts say they are not.

Powers said this ruling "opens the door" to businesses raising a religious objection to covering "not just emergency contraception, but ... contraception in general."

The Court strongly suggested it would reject broad religious claims to, for example, discriminate against gay employees, according to SCOTUSblog.com.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, responding to Ginsburg's characterization of the majority opinion, said it "does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent."

Kennedy's opinion emphasizes that in this particular case, a mechanism for accommodating employers is "already in place" so that the majority opinion does not require the government to create "a whole new program or burden" on the government, according to SCOTUSblog.com.

"In our constitutional tradition," Kennedy wrote," freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law.

"It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one's religious (or non-religious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community," Kennedy said.

According to SCOTUSblog.com, the Court holds that corporations (including for-profit corporations) are "persons" for purposes of RFRA. The additional question was whether corporations can have a religious "belief" within the meaning of RFRA. On that question, the Court limits its holding to closely held corporations, leaving for another day whether larger, publicly traded corporations have religious beliefs.

"My first reaction is this is a loss for America's workers because over 80 percent of corporations are closely held," said Marci Hamilton, professor at Cardozo Law School.

"Workers are the losers. The many workers who don't share the owners' religious views must now bear the burden of those religious views by being denied coverage by the company for emergency contraception," Hamilton said. "And taxpayers are the other losers because taxpayers are the ones now that must foot the bill."

Ruthann Robson, law professor at City University of New York School of Law, said the divergent opinions saw the majority calling the ruling "very narrow and the dissenters saying it's very broad."

"Time is going to tell which of those becomes true," Robson said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, a Republican who represents most of Lancaster County, congratulated the Hahns for resisting "the power of the federal government" and taking "a brave stand for freedom."

"Conestoga Wood provided good insurance long before Obamacare," Pitts said. "They didn't need a government order to know that providing for their employees was the right thing to do."

Michael Geer, president of Pennsylvania Family Institute, said he was pleased that the Supreme Court affirmed the right of Americans to "live and work according to their faith."

In his view, the decision's impact, "for most Americans, won't be all that noticed, because for the most part, Americans have been free to practice their faith in the public square without much government intrusion or intervention. That, thankfully, in large measure will go on."

Geer said he does not foresee the courts being flooded with RFRA challenges to the contraceptive mandate.

"The number of companies that challenge this in court is minuscule," he said. "There won't be large numbers of people rushing to the courts to suddenly claim religious freedom on these grounds."

He said he hopes, however, that this ruling "will set the stage for increased religious freedom in our public square."

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg, president of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said "religious liberty scored a victory" with the Court concluding "that religious conscience of closely held businesses is to be protected from government coercion."

Conestoga Wood makes solid-wood kitchen cabinetry components. It has three Pennsylvania plants in East Earl, Beaver Springs and Beavertown. It also has plants in Kenly, North Carolina, and Kent, Washington.

Wenger, Conestoga Wood's attorney, said the ruling affirms limits on government power.

"There are limits on the government's ability to ask people to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs," Wenger said. "The practical take-away from this is you don't have to cede your religious liberties in order to run a business."