POCATELLO — A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the owners of closely held businesses such as Hobby Lobby to be exempted from provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act because of religious beliefs should not have much impact on this city’s ordinance to protect members of the gay and transgender community from discrimination, according to Pocatello attorney James Ruchti.
Ruchti helped organize the Fair Pocatello group that supported the Pocatello ordinance during an attempt to overturn it during the May primary election.
The ordinance remained in effect with a 4,943 to 4,863 vote to keep it in place.
During a recount held last week and paid for by the Vote Yes Pocatello group opposed to the ordinance, the margin of approval shrank, but the ordinance was upheld.
Ruchti said he didn’t think the recent Hobby Lobby decision involving contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act will have much impact on anti-discrimination ordinances similar to Pocatello’s.
“Some groups may want to use that decision because it’s a high-profile case,” Ruchti said about businesses claiming exceptions because of religious beliefs. “That’s probably because of some misunderstandings about the Hobby Lobby case.”
The Supreme Court held that a closely held company such as Hobby Lobby could refuse to pay for insurance coverage for four specific types of contraception involving intrauterine devices and morning-after pills. The High Court also established that alternatives had to exist for employees to secure insurance coverage for contraceptives outside of company control.
Ruchti said the existing Pocatello city ordinance already states the enforcement of its antidiscrimination law is subject to Idaho’s free exercise of religion protections. That state statute, 73-402, says: “Free exercise of religion is a fundamental right that applies in this state, even if laws, rules or other government actions are facially neutral.”
Like the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Idaho’s law says government cannot burden someone’s free exercise of religion unless it’s “essential to further a compelling governmental interest” and it is the least restrictive means to fulfilling that interest.
Ruchti said the language in the Idaho statute is broad and may not withstand a court challenge.
During last Friday’s recount supervised by the Idaho Attorney General, the ordinance remained in effect with an 80 vote margin. The Vote Yes Pocatello group had until Monday to appeal the recount and challenge the process, but did not do so.
“I thought the recount was done top-notch,” Ruchti said. “I was totally impressed with the county clerk (Robert Poleki) and his staff.”