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High court may take up religious challenge to birth control coverage

The Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether corporations can claim a religious exemption to the healthcare law's contraceptive mandate.

September 19, 2013|By David G. Savage
  • The healthcare law requires corporations to cover contraceptives such as the birth control pill. Some employers object on religious grounds.
The healthcare law requires corporations to cover contraceptives such… (Getty Images )

WASHINGTON— The Obama administration set the stage Thursday for another Supreme Court showdown on the president's healthcare law, this time to decide whether for-profit companies can be forced to provide full contraceptive coverage for their employees despite religious objections from their owners.

The administration's lawyers asked the justices to take up the issue this fall to decide whether these corporations can claim a religious exemption to this part of the healthcare law.

U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. called the issue one of "exceptional importance" that needs to be resolved soon.

Dozens of employers across the country have sued to challenge the so-called contraceptive mandate in the new law. Large employers are required to provide health coverage, and the law says this insurance must pay for standard contraceptives, including the "morning after" pill.

But some employers object on religious grounds. They went to court, arguing that they cannot be compelled by the government to subsidize birth control or abortions. Their legal claims rested on the 1st Amendment's protection for the "free exercise of religion" and on a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 measure meant to strengthen religious liberty.

The challengers include the Green family from Oklahoma, who own and operate Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a chain of more than 500 arts and crafts stores that employs more than 13,000 full-time workers.

They won a preliminary victory in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which had the effect of blocking enforcement of the mandate. But the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia and the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati rejected similar claims from other employers.

The cases have raised two large issues: Is a for-profit corporation a "person" protected under religious freedom laws? And can a corporation have religious beliefs?

The Greens argue that because they are people, and they own the chain of stores, their religious beliefs deserve protection.

The administration's lawyers argued, however, that it would be "unprecedented" for a court to extend religious exemptions to corporations. No court has "accepted a claim that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act enables a for-profit corporate employer to exempt itself from generally applicable employment regulations," Verrilli said.

These cases involving corporate employers are separate from suits involving schools and hospitals that have religious affiliations. The administration has given those employers a limited exemption from the law.

Lawyers for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty agreed that the administration's action means the high court will probably rule on the issue in the upcoming term.

"The United States government is taking the remarkable position that private individuals lose their religious freedom when they make a living," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the group, which also represents Hobby Lobby Stores. "We're confident that the Supreme Court will reject the government's extreme position and hold that religious liberty is for everyone — including people who run a business."

david.savage@latimes.com

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