Supreme Court will take up new health law dispute

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to referee another
dispute over President Barack Obama's health care law: whether
businesses may use religious objections to escape a requirement to cover
birth control for employees.

The justices said they will take up an issue that
has divided the lower courts in the face of roughly 40 lawsuits from
for-profit companies asking to be spared from having to cover some or
all forms of contraception.

The Obama administration promotes the law's
provision of a range of preventive care, free of charge, as a key
benefit of the health care overhaul. Contraception is included in the
package of cost-free benefits, which opponents say is an attack on the
religious freedom of employers.

The court will consider two cases. One involves
Hobby Lobby Inc., an Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain with
13,000 full-time employees. Hobby Lobby won in the lower courts.

The other case is an appeal from Conestoga Wood
Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania company that employs 950 people in
making wood cabinets. Lower courts rejected the company's claims.

The court said the cases will be combined for arguments, probably in late March. A decision should come by late June.

The cases center on the provision of the law that
requires most employers that offer health insurance to their workers to
provide the range of preventive health benefits. In both instances, the
Christian families that own the companies say that insuring some forms
of contraception violates their religious beliefs.

The key issue is whether profit-making corporations
may assert religious beliefs under the 1993 Religious Freedom
Restoration Act or the First Amendment provision guaranteeing Americans
the right to believe and worship as they choose.

Nearly four years ago, the justices expanded the
concept of corporate “personhood,” saying in the Citizens United case
that corporations have the right to participate in the political process
the same way that individuals do. Some lower court judges have applied
the same logic in the context of religious beliefs.

“The government has no business forcing citizens to
choose between making a living and living free,” said David Cortman of
the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian public interest law firm
that is representing Conestoga Wood at the Supreme Court.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the
health care law “puts women and families in control of their health care
by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth
control, free of charge.” Carney said the administration already has
exempted churches from the requirement, and has created a buffer between
faith-affiliated charities and contraceptive coverage by requiring
insurers or another third party to provide contraceptive coverage
instead of the religious employer. Separate lawsuits are challenging
that arrangement.

The issue is largely confined to religious
institutions and family-controlled businesses with a small number of
shareholders. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 85 percent
of large American employers already had offered coverage before the
health care law required it.

Hobby Lobby calls itself a “biblically founded
business” and is closed on Sundays. Founded in 1972, the company now
operates more than 500 stores in 41 states. The Green family, Hobby
Lobby's owners, also owns the Mardel Christian bookstore chain.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said
corporations can be protected by the 1993 law in the same manner as
individuals, and “that the contraceptive-coverage requirement
substantially burdens Hobby Lobby and Mardel's rights under” the law.

In its Supreme Court brief, the administration said
the appeals court ruling was wrong and, if allowed to stand, would make
the law “a sword used to deny employees of for-profit commercial
enterprises the benefits and protections of generally applicable laws.”

Conestoga Wood is owned by a Mennonite family who
“object as a matter of conscience to facilitating contraception that may
prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the womb.”

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against
the company on its claims under the 1993 law and the Constitution,
saying “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious

The Supreme Court will have to confront several
questions: Can these businesses hold religious beliefs; does the health
care provision significantly infringe on those beliefs and, even if the
answer to the first two questions is “yes,” does the government still
have a sufficient interest in guaranteeing women who work for the
companies access to contraception?

The justices chose two cases in which the companies
object to only a few of the 20 forms of contraception approved by the
Food and Drug Administration. In a third case in which the court took no
action Tuesday, Michigan-based Autocam Corp. doesn't want to pay for
any contraception for its employees because of its owners' Roman
Catholic beliefs.

The emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella work
mostly by preventing ovulation. The FDA says on its website that Plan B
“may also work by preventing fertilization of an egg … or by
preventing attachment (implantation) to the womb (uterus),” while Ella
also may work by changing the lining of the uterus so as to prevent

Hobby Lobby specifically argues that two
intrauterine devices (IUDs) also may prevent implantation of a
fertilized egg. The company's owners say they believe life begins at
conception, and they oppose only birth control methods that can prevent
implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, but not other forms of

In siding with the administration, several women's
groups rejected what they see as efforts by the businesses to come
between women and their doctors.

The health care law's inclusion of contraception
among preventive health benefits was a major victory in a decades-long
fight for equal coverage for women's reproductive health care needs,
said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law

Citing the example of IUDs, Greenberger said the
devices may be the safest, most effective way to prevent pregnancy for
women who cannot take the birth control pill. But at $500 to $1,000 for
an IUD, “the cost can be prohibitive,” she said.

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