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
    -10

    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
    -8

    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
    -7

    Comment number 9.

    .Jack1236
    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
    -6

    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
    -6

    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.

 

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