WASHINGTON (CNS) – Oral arguments in two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court March 25 focused on whether for-profit corporations have religious grounds to object to the new health-care law’s requirement that most employers provide contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.
Crowds on both sides of the issue gathered outside the Supreme Court on a cold, snowy morning, holding aloft signs and chanting for their cause.
Inside the court, the arguments lasted for 90 minutes, an extension of the usual 60 minutes, and the justices in their questions for the lawyers arguing the cases seemed divided on the issue. At the center was a close inspection of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, which allows for religious exceptions to general laws in certain circumstances.
The cases —Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius — made their way to the Supreme Court after federal appeals courts issued opposite rulings about the companies’ claims to a religious rights exemption to the contraceptive mandate of the health care law.
At issue is the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that most employers, including religious employers, provide employees coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services.
Both secular businesses claim the contraceptive mandate of the health care law violates the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and their religious liberty rights under RFRA.
The 1993 law says that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.
The legal question is whether RFRA protects a for-profit company from having to provide a benefit to which employees are entitled under federal law but to which the owners have religious objections.
Hobby Lobby is an Oklahoma-based chain of more than 500 arts and crafts stores with more than 13,000 employees owned by a Christian family, the Greens. Conestoga Wood Specialties is a Pennsylvania-based kitchen cabinet-making company with 950 employees owned by a Mennonite family, the Hahns.
Conestoga Wood Specialties objects to complying with any portion of the mandate. Hobby Lobby is not opposed to covering birth control in its employee health plan — and in fact already provides that benefit. What the Green family objects to is being required to cover contraceptive drugs considered to be abortifacients, such as the morning-after pill and Plan B.