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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  • Comment number 45.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    A violation of the 'company's' religious beliefs? I think not. Companies do not have beliefs, only its members/employees. If one's religious belief is to not use such contraceptives, then don't use them. That is practicing your religious belief. Denying use of the contraceptives to another is not practicing your religious belief but forcing your belief on others, denying them freedom of choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    The Bible states "Thou shall not kill", yet American bible believers join the armed forces & kill, but it's OK, the US constitution allows it. No religious holy deity, but the US constitution, has the final say of absolution. Hypocrisy in law & religion are mainstays of American Society where judges render legal decisions on religious beliefs based on their GOP or Democratic political bent & will.

  • Comment number 42.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 41.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Hobby Lobby's religious beliefs are selectively enforced. They source their goods from China, a country of forced abortion. Hobby Lobby isn't worried about their beliefs so much as their profit. They want the tax deduction for offering insurance plus the right to override the medical community and call IUDs abortion devices, Did I mention Viagra is covered in all US insurance policies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I would echo Justice Kagan's concerns about where the line would be if these religious fundamentalists get their way. What degree of control over their employees would bosses have if they claim a religious cover?

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    To practice your religion freely is a right to impose it on others is not. Why is that so hard for people to understand? And birth control is not used just to prevent pregnancy in some cases it is to aid in pregnancy or to help health conditions. Why would you be against helping someone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The problem with these people is that they don't understand that birth control pills are not only a contracetion device. I don't want to get into a biological discussion but they are also used to regulate women and as such they are used to aid medical conditions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I am all for having national health insurance, but I think health insurance should cover medical conditions and care. Birth control, penis pumps, male enhancement, etc. should not be covered by health insurance. I have no problem if people want to setup some other collective plan that they can buy into for those items, but it shouldn't be required of everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    No one is kept from birth control. The question is about whether the tax payer has to pay for it, or businesses with owners who are forced to go against their beliefs. Its about personal responsibility. Its not a national health scheme n the USA. You pay for what you get. The USA is not socialist. Its deeply ingrained that you have to pay your own way. They should force the same with Cialis etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    @11)Exactly! Never understand why these "Christians" with multimillions still hold onto their money.Jesus didn't keep his money or like the rich:I know cuz I read his book.Why do they keep people from birth control because they are not going to want their tax dollars used for the care of unwanted babies.Green family certainly won't open their home to them..that would be something Christ would do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Methinks these business owners should listen to the Apostle Paul: "Love of money is the root of all evil." What part of "ALL evil" don't they understand? What are they doing in business trying to earn a profit?

    Not to mention Jesus, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." Or will they use the excuse that Jesus didn't mention the Internal Revenue Service?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It's THEIR business. You shouldn't have enacted laws that could (obviously) have been seen as unwelcome by one of the largest religious groups of the nation.

    And @27, That's discrimination, learn the difference.

    Would this create exceptions? Absolutely. Let the business make their decisions and let the market decide whether those decisions are viable or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Humanity struggles to break free of its ancient superstitions, and this Supreme Court event is only a fraction of that struggle. Man's accumulation of knowledge through reason and science is accelerating quickly so that 23rd Century citizens will look upon us as we view those who gave us the homunculus, spontaneous generation of life, the flat earth, and the earth-centric universe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    No doubt the plans will still cover erectile dysfunction drugs. This is ludicrous. These so called religious people need to drag themselves kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I worked for a small period of time at the Hobby Lobby distribution center in Oklahoma City. People had to work at a crazy pace for long hours and injuries were very common. Pay at the time was only $8.00 an hour and management would go crazy if you had a little bit of overtime. Things have improved but they certainly didn't act very Christian. Just advertisement slogan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Hmmm... I am a physician who happens to disagree with Christians based on my religious principles. Can I refuse to treat any Christian who comes bleeding into my ER?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    "These cases illustrate the inevitable conflicts that result from too much government involvement in healthcare,"
    Yes.... protecting the rights of employees has always been inconvenient.


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