By Shira Kipnees, Staff Writer ||
Last Tuesday, the John Marshall Pre-Law Honor Society and F&M’s Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development (OSPGD) hosted a constitutional law panel on Conestoga Wood Supplies v. Sebellius, a case currently before the Supreme Court.
The panel, moderated by Grier Stephenson, Charles A. Dana Professor of Government, included Charles Proctor III, who represented the plaintiffs, the Hahn family, in this case; Jonathan Massey, Jr., a partner at Massey & Gail and a former clerk for William J. Brennan, Jr., former chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Mark C. Radhert, a scholar of constitutional law at Temple Beasley School of Law a former clerk for Harry A. Blackmun, former chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Conestoga Wood Supplies v. Sebellius concerns the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), formerly headed by Kathleen Sebellius, for employers to provide their workers with health insurance that covers contraceptives and contraceptive services, based on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The plaintiff of the case, Conestoga Wood Supplies, is a local company owned by the Hahn family, who are conservative Mennonites and believe that human life begins at the moment a human egg is fertilized.
“On this basis, the Hahn family objects to the mandated provision of emergency contraceptives and certain intrauterine devices that prevent an embryo from implanting in a woman’s uterus,” said Kathryn Schellenger, director of legal professions advising for OSPGD. “However, they do not object to the provision of contraceptives that do not interfere with an already fertilized egg.”
The Hahn family’s attorneys argued before the courts that this mandate violates their freedom of religious expression, as protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The government has exempted nonprofit religious corporations from the mandate for the same reasons the Hahns and Hobby Lobby, another plaintiff in this case, object to it, and the government’s attorneys argued that Conestoga Wood and Hobby Lobby should not be similarly exempted from the Mandate because they are for-profit corporations. They argue that corporations, unlike individuals, do not have First Amendment free exercise rights.
“There are many complicated issues before the Court in this case,” Schellenger said. “The two primary issues are: one, whether corporations can engage in religious exercise, and, two, if so, whether the HHS mandate violates RFRA.”
Schellenger explained that this court case is important because it will impact the way U.S. courts address religious freedom in the future, no matter what the Supreme Court decides. Schellenger also believes this case is of interest and important to F&M students because Conestoga Wood is headquartered in Lancaster County.
Schellenger hoped that students who attended the law panel would be inspired to think critically about this case and the issues it raises.
“I hope that it inspired students to think critically about the issues specifically posed by the case; i.e. the nature of corporations and whether closely-held family-owned corporations can be distinguished from public corporations, and the conflict between the Hahn’s right to freely exercise their religion and the rights of their female employees to access all contraceptives under their healthcare plan, as mandated by law, as well as the greater impact of the Court’s decision,” she said. “The panel did an excellent job of presenting each party’s arguments, and I think it enabled students to really consider and understand each party’s position, regardless of how each student personally feels about the issues.”
Schellenger noted that a decision for either party would not only shape the future of free expression cases in America, but it could open the door for future and more significant actions.
“The government has argued that a decision exempting Conestoga Wood from the Mandate could potentially allow companies to argue exemptions from all types of health coverage; for example, companies could refuse to provide coverage for blood transfusions, for vaccinations, or for health care at all,” Schellenger said. “Conversely, a decision for the government could mean even further restrictions upon the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
Junior Shira Kipnees is a staff writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.