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Do corporations have religious rights? Supreme Court hears birth-control coverage case

Mar 25, 2014
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Activists hold signs outside the Supreme Court March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court heard arguments today in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc if for profit corporations can refuse to cover contraceptive services in their employee’s healthcare for religious beliefs. ; Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court appeared split during today’s oral arguments weighing whether employers’ religious views can exempt them from providing contraceptive services in employee health plans, as required by the Affordable Care Act. 

Under the law, religious nonprofits were exempted from this requirement, but for-profit businesses were not.

The companies involved in the high court case are Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.—a chain of craft stores run by an evangelical Christian family and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp.—a business operated by a Mennonite family that sells wooden cabinets.

These plaintiffs object to certain types of birth control which they consider to be abortion-inducing—like morning after pills and IUDs. They argue that a 1993 federal law on religious freedoms protects businesses as well as individuals—and the contraceptive mandate infringes on their religious rights.

The Obama administration and its supporters say a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the businesses could undercut laws governing immunizations, Social Security taxes and minimum wages.

The decision could hinge on perennial swing vote Anthony Kennedy, who today voiced concerns about the rights of female employees. He asked what rights women would have if employers ordered them to wear burkas—the full–length robe worn by some conservative Muslim women.

Kennedy also raised questions about the government’s arguments. The health care law states that health plans must cover all forms of birth control that have been approved by the FDA at no extra charge. Kennedy challenged the government on how that logic would apply to abortions. “A profit corporation could be forced in principle to pay for abortions,” he said. “Your reasoning would permit it.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan asked whether companies should be allowed to refuse to cover procedures like blood transfusions or vaccines, if employers had a religious objection to such medical treatments.

A decision in the case is expected by late June. How would you like to see the case play out? What do you make of the arguments on either side? Should for-profit businesses have religious rights? What might be the implications of this decision?

Guests:

Sarah Posner, Journalist with Religion Dispatches – a daily, online magazine that focuses on the intersection of religion, politics and culture; Posner was in the Court for today’s hearing.

David French, Senior Counsel, American Center for Law and Justice – an advocacy group focused on religious freedoms

Emily Martin, Vice President and General Counsel, National Women’s Law Center – an advocacy group focused on laws and policies that affect women

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