WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court will take up a challenge to part of President Barack Obama’s health-care law by companies claiming a religious exemption to the requirement that they provide birth-control coverage for employees.
The justices said today they will hear two cases involving family-run businesses whose owners say they view some forms of contraception as immoral.
The dispute threatens to carve a hole in the 2010 health-care, law already beset by problems on multiple fronts as its major provisions take effect. The clash will be the court’s first look at Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishment, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, since a majority upheld the core of the law in 2012. The court will rule by July.
Both sides urged the justices to resolve the religious-exemption question, which the administration said was of “exceptional importance.” The issue has divided lower courts and sparked dozens of lawsuits by for-profit companies.
“Few issues are more important than the extent to which the government must recognize and accommodate the religious exercise of those it regulates,” argued one of the companies, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a craft-store chain whose owners say they run the company in accordance with the Bible.
The second case involves Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a woodworking business owned by a Mennonite family.
The court will consider whether companies can assert the same religious-freedom rights as people. A variation of that question drove an ideological wedge through the court three years ago in the Citizens United case, which centered on corporate speech. The court cleared the way for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns.
The birth-control rule stems from the health-care law’s requirement that employers provide insurance coverage meeting minimum standards. Hobby Lobby says it could be fined as much as $475 million a year for noncompliance. Conestoga, which has fewer employees, says it faces annual fines of $35 million.
The cases center on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the U.S. government may “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only in rare cases. Congress enacted the law to nullify the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which cut back constitutional protection for religious practices.
The Obama administration says that before 1990, the high court treated the Constitution’s free-exercise clause as covering only individuals and non-profit religious groups.
“No pre-Smith case held - or even suggested - that a for-profit corporation could obtain exemptions from corporate regulation on the basis of religion,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued in court papers.