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 125.

    Obama-care will fuel rising health care costs because people who are paying in to the insurance will want to spend it on themselves - rather than give that money to someone else.

    Its human nature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    122. Chris A --- he would be put on medicaid if his income is too low - on the other hand - the hospital may bill him (I hope) and he should work out a payment plan. The hospital may also put a lien on any property he owns. If his cirrhosis is that bad and he has been seeing a doctor then his doctor should be removed from medicine as incompetent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    115. Englishmaninvegas

    "since I moved here 8 years ago"

    Yes, things have surely changed, everywhere.

    121. LucyJ

    "Obamacare is going to cost taxpayers trillions yet millions of Americans will continue to be uninsured

    Some reports have shown … 200 trillion in debt

    Thats a lot of birth control"

    That IS an awful lot of people control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    US health care = independence: an acquaintance (53) was admitted last week to a free hospital in Houston as has no health insurance (lost when downsized a year ago) and diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. They drained 10 liters of fluid from his abdomen and discharged him the next day with a recommendation that he see his family doctor, duh! Can you imagine that happening in the UK or EC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Marie: No. Independence is highly valued. You can't have dignity without it

    Not to mention freedom and democracy

    Marie: Thus Obamacare

    Obamacare is going to cost taxpayers trillions yet millions of Americans will continue to be uninsured

    Some reports have shown that according to BIS in Basel, Switzerland, USA can go up to 200 trillion in debt

    Thats a lot of birth control

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Englishman: devote a lot of time, effort and resources to feeding the homeless.That to me is much more important than money

    That is very kind of you

    If only Obama was as good as you, USA would be a better a place

    But he's not that good and USA is being overtaken by the One World Order

    To me America being a free and independent nation means more than all the money and power in the world

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.


    "Is money really the only value that matters...?"

    No. Independence is highly valued. You can't have dignity without it.

    Re greed, I think most people would say spend a few billion dollars more to make sure the pipe walls are thick enough. But there's a devil to fight when they get near the top. They start to save time & skim cost - at all the wrong places. Thus Obamacare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Englishman: seem more worthy than much of the rapacious greed and unalloyed self-interest I have seen

    The problem is that we traded a bad system for a worse system

    Its all just a trick

    If Democrats had done universal health care, every American would be covered- like how you say UK does it

    Instead Democrats chose mandated health care which does not guarentee coverage for all Americans

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    #116 LucyJ - I rather like and follow what the author John Gray has to say which is that at this time of my life (I am 58) - it is a time for "Service"

    What I want most is to be able to help others - particularly those less fortunate than I. This is why I devote a lot of time, effort and resources to feeding the homeless here

    That to me is much more important than money

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Englishman: Is money really the only value that matters?

    Power is the only value worth more than money-
    money is just the cherry on top

    Censorship of the internet- the last free press- is worth more than all the gold and treasures in the world

    Indiana is the first state to break itself off from Bill Gates' Common Core school standards in which Hoosiers chose their freedom over money

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    #114 marieinaustin

    What annoys me here is the parroting of phrases like "socialized medicine" by those who have no concept of what socialism is

    I'm no socialist - but some of its tenets seem more worthy than much of the rapacious greed and unalloyed self-interest I have seen since I moved here 8 years ago

    Is money really the only value that matters to people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.


    Thought I was replying to you in kind: "most people using this phrase here in the good ole US of A wouldn't know socialism if it bit them in the backside"

    Obamacare is not enjoying support from an overwhelming majority in the US. Btw, the majority Does seem to know even freedom isn't free. Flying Our flag isn't the sign of oppression that others feel for their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    #111 marieinaustin

    Whilst it would be very easy for me to reply in kind, using the rather patronizing and insulting tone you employ - I won't take the bait

    Such facilities that the British enjoy as part of their National Health Service do not "fall from the sky" but are funded from central taxation - which an overwhelming majority of the population supports.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    whatever happened to freedom from religion?

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    110. Englishmaninvegas

    That is amazing. What else can you get - for free? It must feel like Christmas every day over there. There's the answer. Why don't we just get Santa Claus to foot the bill for the US, like Father Christmas does in the UK?

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    #108 marieinaustin

    It is indeed free

    A doctor will write a prescription for whatever contraceptive a woman wants to use - and when they go to their pharmacy to fill the order, there is no charge

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    A company/corporation cannot have religious beliefs. It's a man-made construct designed for doing business and nothing more. It cannot recognise God/Allah et al and therefore cannot have a religious belief. End of story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    "I am so pleased that in the British "SOCIALIZED" health care system (most people using this phrase here in the good ole US of A wouldn't know socialism if it bit them in the backside!) - a system of which I am inordinately proud - contraception is actually free"

    It's free? It just drops from the sky does it? Fascinating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I care passionately about democracy, as long as everyone else believes and does exactly as i do. Of course I care about my employees welfare but only if they have the same beliefs as me. No it doesn't say in their contract they have to convert but perhaps it should since my religion is always right. I thought the USA hated fundamentalists

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    So to me I would go with Hobby Lobby to win this court case

    Because of USA's Bill of Rights the internet has always allowed freedom of speech such as this blog

    But now the Internet is being given to the UN which does not have to follow Bill of Rights including freedom of speech

    USA and the world is losing our last free press


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