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Christian Union
February 11, 2014

Kyle Duncan is Lead Attorney for Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Case


A Columbia University law alumnus says he simply wants to serve God as he prepares to enter the nation's highest judicial stage in his quest to champion religious liberties.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear twin cases testing the strength of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The 1993 measure commits the federal government to safeguarding an individual's "inalienable right" to exercise religion.

Kyle Duncan, Columbia LL.M. '04, is the lead attorney for Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which is challenging a regulation within the federal healthcare law requiring employers to offer access to so-called morning-after pills. In addition to the retailer's claims under the religious-freedom act, the court plans to examine constitutional issues.

That case and a similar lawsuit from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation involve religious liberty objections by family businesses to provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. On spiritual grounds, they oppose the act's requirement for employers to expand health coverage to include contraceptives linked to early abortions.

The Hobby Lobby case "will answer the question of whether religious faith extends to people who are simply trying to earn a living," said Duncan. "Churches and charities have religious freedom. The government says there's no religious freedom if you're running a business."

Duncan, who is representing Hobby Lobby on a pro-bono basis via The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, readily asserts the chain's owners have a "meaningful, valid rejection of the mandate."

For Duncan, his work as general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit is tied to his principled embrace of individual liberties and his personal faith. "We've made a basic commitment in this country to respect religious conscience," he said.

In the case of Hobby Lobby, the Green family has openly reflected its Christian beliefs through its operation of craft stores for four decades. Likewise, the Hahn family's Mennonite faith is embedded in its longtime woodworking business.

In June, a majority of the justices on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Hobby Lobby, ruling corporations have similar religious rights to humans. The prevailing jurists said the contraception requirement posed a violation of the corporation's religious freedom under federal law, according to news reports.

Two other cases handled in the 3rd and 6th appellate circuits held for-profit corporations do not have religious rights. In an unusual twist, Hobby Lobby welcomed the Supreme Court's decision to hear the government's appeal of the arts-and-crafts chain's victory, hoping for a favorable resolution to the so-called circuit split.
"This is a highly important case that the court needs to resolve," Duncan said. "It's the kind of issue that the Supreme Court needs to decide."

In part, the justices will be asked if they agree with the "corporate-conscience" argument, meaning that for-profit corporations can hold religious beliefs and, thus, opening the door to religious exemptions from federal mandates, according to news reports.

At a personal level, "when the Supreme Court decides to weigh in, it's extremely satisfying," Duncan said. "It's important to my client and the nation."

Hobby Lobby is among 40 or so corporations, ranging from industrial-material shredding to property management, seeking exemptions similar to the ones the healthcare law grants for nonprofit religious organizations and churches.

In tackling the central issues, the Supreme Court is likely to decide whether such businesses amount to "persons" under the religious act and whether the U.S. Congress meant to equate corporations as persons. If the high court decides a business is incapable of practicing faith, it may decree such firms can exercise the religious preferences of their owners.

As for Duncan, the father of five children and practicing Catholic, said he is simply motivated to use his talents to honor his Creator. "All I really want to do is what God wants me to do with the talents He gave me," said Duncan. "The Supreme Court hears very few cases."

President Barack Obama, Columbia '83, Harvard Law '91, signed the healthcare act in March 2010 as his signature piece of legislation and as the most significant regulatory overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Yale '79, Columbia, '83, is representing the government in its case against Hobby Lobby.

As for Duncan, the Louisiana native is not a stranger to the high court. In 2010, Duncan argued Connick v. Thompson before the Supreme Court, obtaining the reversal of a $20 million civil-rights judgment against a district attorney's office. He also has worked on another 10 or so cases that have landed before the court.

Duncan, whose diverse background includes a stint at the University of Mississippi as a law professor and as Louisiana's solicitor general, said he relishes his new role championing liberties for the Becket Fund, which seeks to protect expressions of faith.

"These are areas of the law that are incredibly rewarding. We need people who are fighting in these realms," Duncan said. "They are important to our Constitution and in our public interest."