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
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
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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
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 contraception.
In siding with the administration, several women's groups rejected
what they see as efforts by the businesses to come between women and
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 Center.
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.
Press; MARK SHERMAN]
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