Hobby Lobby case: Court weighs birth control mandate

Hobby Lobby co-founders David Green (L) and Barbara Green (C) leave the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments in Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Hobby Lobby co-founders David Green (left) and Barbara Green (centre) say their religion bars them from offering contraception coverage to their workers in their employee health plan

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The US Supreme Court has heard arguments in a case that turns on whether for-profit companies can exercise religious beliefs.

Two companies are challenging a provision of a 2010 healthcare overhaul that requires employers to cover the cost of workers' birth control.

Their owners say that violates their Christian beliefs. The government says an exemption would undermine the law.

A ruling in the closely watched case is expected in June.

The craft store Hobby Lobby and the cabinetmaker Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp are challenging the measure in the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama's signature healthcare overhaul, which is known to its detractors as "Obamacare".

The companies are owned by people who say their religious faith puts them in opposition to four methods of contraception included as preventative care in the law. The law requires them to offer birth control coverage in their company health insurance plans or pay a tax.

The companies are suing the federal department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the implementation of the healthcare law.

Exercising beliefs

The arguments on Tuesday were something of a re-match for US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, representing the Obama administration in defence of the law, and lawyer Paul Clement, who represented the companies.

The men faced off in front of the Supreme Court in 2012 to argue the legality of the ACA, which sought to vastly increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance and to regulate the quality of insurance they received.

The law passed without a single vote from Republican lawmakers. It has been a divisive topic in Washington ever since.

Though the court upheld the law's overall constitutionality in 2012, individual sections of the ACA have been under attack from both Republicans in Congress and some in the private sector.

In this particular challenge, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga argue the contraception mandate creates an undue burden on the religious beliefs of a corporation. But neither Congress nor US courts have ever established clearly that corporations can have religious beliefs in the first place.

In oral arguments on Tuesday, the nine-member court's more liberal judges worried about the precedent it would set should this case do just that.

"There are quite a number of medical treatments that different religious groups object to," said Justice Elena Kagan, who was appointed by Mr Obama.

"So one religious group could opt out of this and another religious group could opt out of that and everything would be piecemeal and nothing would be uniform."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, also an Obama appointee, noted that blood transfusions, vaccines and medical procedures using pig tissue could all be opposed on religious grounds.

But to deny that companies could not take religious objections to government regulations would cause other problems, said conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who was appointed by President George W Bush.

"What about the implications of saying that no for-profit corporation can raise any sort of free exercise claim at all and nobody associated with the for-profit corporation can raise any sort of free exercise claim at all?"

He cited a recent ruling in Denmark that required all animals to be stunned before slaughter, effectively banning kosher and halal meat preparations.

Demonstrators rally outside of the US Supreme Court during oral arguments in Sebelius v Hobby Lobby 25 March, 2014 in Washington, DC. Supporters of both sides of the argument demonstrated outside of the court

"Suppose Congress enacted something like that here. What would a corporation that is a kosher or halal slaughterhouse do?" he asked.

"They would have no recourse whatsoever. They couldn't even get a day in court."

Much will depend on how the justices interpret the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which made it easier for individuals and groups to apply for religious exemptions from laws.

It was passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling against two drug counsellors who lost their jobs after using peyote, an illegal drug, in a Native American religious ritual.

On Tuesday, Mr Verrilli argued that the RFRA was meant to protect individuals, not to hold employees hostage to their employers' religious beliefs.

He said that allowing companies to opt out of federal laws on religious grounds would enable them to cite their faith to oppose civil rights, disability access, or other civil protections ensured by the government - especially as it is impractical to debate the sincerity of any religious belief.

But Mr Clement argued that Congress intended for the law to be expansive.

'Too much government'

He noted that churches and non-profits were already exempt from the contraception mandate and asked why for-profit companies could not be extended the same protection.

Outside the court, protesters on both sides held placards and chanted as snow fell around them. The contraception mandate's supporters greatly outnumbered Hobby Lobby's supporters.

"Employees have an obligation to provide basic healthcare services and can't pick and choose what those services are," said Beth Parker, general counsel for Planned Parenthood of California, a women's health organisation.

But Hadley Heath, health policy director of the conservative Independent Women's Foundation, said women employees could purchase contraception on their own and companies should be free to choose not to offer it.

"These cases illustrate the inevitable conflicts that result from too much government involvement in healthcare," she said in a statement.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @3.Colin The Truth
    Ahhh good ole American Loons. Amazing country brought down by these crazies.

    HAHA and what about your backwards looney country? The UK is the only western country to force Internet Service Provider's (ISP's) to ban pornography unless the user "opts-in". The UK is the only western country to still have a state-established Church (the Church of England)

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    It's somewhat off the main issue to get into digressions about Obamacare, birth control methods, and even separation of church and state. At some point it's long overdue for the courts to clarify whether employer insurance is a form of compensation (wages). It seems to me that coverage is not something out of the employer's pocket in the first place. It is the employees once the labor is served.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Re #20. The population of the EU is almost 508 million. Was that a mistake or the usual FOX/GOP/TEA anti-factual propaganda? Thus the EU has a larger population than the US and is also, like the US, divided into autonomous states. If they can do it we can, and vice versa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    17. Pithy comment. 21. How it should be, corrupted, however, by decades of Republican malfeasance driving social agenda wedges at every opportunity. Hobby Lobby: ".. a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The US is a secular state as designed by the founders. Freedom of religion requires separation of church and state. The whole point is that nobody can impose their religious beliefs on others. The constant attempts by the religious right to impose their beliefs on everyone else are increasing opposition to them, hopefully the tipping point soon will be reached and they will be out of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I love how most people that are pro ACA mention that it will bring us up to date with the modern world. Europe is an entitlement society and has been run on borrowed money since the inception of the Euro. The US can't look to Europe to solve it's problems because Europe is breaking, and a health care system in place for 61 million can't be replicated on a scale of 314m. It'd be nice though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    to G-425: the US economy crashed due to people taking out mortgages that they could not afford. Ie. a truck driver that makes $60,000 a year buying a second house in Florida. The next round will be related to car loans, as 55% of used car loans issued in the US are SUB PRIME and will never be paid back, some even stretching to 8 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It's a very poorly crafted law. There is a case before the courts now regarding an order of Catholic nuns who are suing to be recognized as a religious institution because the law doesn't recognize them as such and is demanding they provide contraceptive and abortion coverage to their "employees". The pro-choicers went too far this time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Should all women be banned from management positions, as this seems to be another basic tenet of religious organisations?

    Could a non-religious company pay Christians half rate because they consider them clinically delusional?

    This is a can-o-worms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    In the U.S.A. we have the Republican (Klingon) & Democrat (Federation) members in a battle for the heart & soul of our country. Anything the Federation proposes to bring our country into the modern era is opposed vehemently by the Klingons. The only reason they oppose things is because it was introduced by the Federation. They must be receiving cloaked msgs. from their leader(s) in Texas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    One large company with a "religious objection" to vaccination would be enough to cause an epidemic. "Say Hello to Mr. Measles and Ms. Pertussis!"

    Can I start a pizza delivery company with a religious exemption from the speed limit? "Fastest pizzas on Earth or in Heaven!"

    I'm still waiting for my religious exemption from gravity. I should have my secretary check on that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Just imagine the businesses ran by Christian Scientists who will not offer medical healthcare at all. or hospitals ran by people who believe in religious fasting not offering food...

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Re. 10: That's "not even wrong" (look it up), your arguement is specious, and we tried "free market" health insurance and it FAILED, utterly, abjectly, and completely.

    Re.11: Ayn Randism deregulated the banks and crashed the economy. Another case of "we tried it and it FAILED."

    If you don't like government, move somewhere that doesn't have one, and watch out for the pirates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Note: Most of the democrats in congress who voted for the law never read it - it is 200+ pages long. It is proof that good intentions can be just as damaging to the economy as bad.

    By the way - considered ok cost is $6,000/yr for a single person $12,000 for a family. and on taxes before you can take a deduction for health care you must spend 10% of your salary. No its not affordable

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This law will allow Republicans to win the majority of elections in 2014. It is poorly written and implemented. The fact that most Europeans do not realize is that America was founded on a principles of Liberty. Every government intervention into our economy has resulted in damage to the consumer, ie the price of college. We will no longer maintain the best drs in the world, sad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Obama care is unconstitutional because it in itself is forcing a set of beliefs onto the entire nation - and it is requiring citizens to tithe to the church of those beliefs.

    The entire health care system should be free market with insurance ala automobile - it covers only accidents, maintenance is out of your pocket so cheaper because you take care of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    29 Minutes ago
    Only Republicans are against Americans

    Think you may find that most Democrats are against it to. Obamacare is a very badly put together law written and orchestrated by a bunch of incompetent's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    vote with your feet, Hobby Lobby is out of the box for friends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Envision what will happen at shareholder meetings of publicly-traded corporations, as they try to decide their companies' religions. "We can't be religion X, it prohibits behavior Q." "Let's be religion Y, they have such nice holidays!" "That's unrealistic, we should be religion Z because most people in market R are Zs and we need to grow in that market." Right. Envision the lawsuits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    that company's employees should feel free to exercise their right to boycott their republican employer.


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