A key provision of the health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama came under harsh criticism from the conservative majority on the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The justices were debating a hotly contested issue testing the limits of government-mandated contraception coverage, specifically involving for-profit corporations that object to it for religious reasons.
The justices appeared divided along ideological lines in a 90-minute oral argument, with the federal government offering a spirited defense of the Affordable Care Act.
“How does a corporation exercise religion?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor, summarizing perhaps the key constitutional question at hand.
“This is a religious question,” said Justice Samuel Alito, suggesting the businesses have such a right. “You want us to provide a definitive secular answer.”
Before the hearing began, hundreds of demonstrators representing both sides of the issue rallied in front of the courthouse.
The court is reviewing provisions of the Affordable Care Act requiring for-profit employers of a certain size to offer insurance benefits for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.
At issue is whether certain companies can refuse to do so on the sincere claim it would violate their owners’ long-established personal beliefs.
Two separate appeals are being heard together.
A ruling expected by late June could clarify whether businesses have a religious liberty right, or whether such constitutional protections apply only to individuals.
The cases involve two appeals from Conestoga Wood Specialties. The companion legal challenge comes from Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based retail giant that will have more than 700 arts and crafts stores nationwide by year’s end.
Both corporations emphasize their desire to operate in harmony with biblical principles while competing in a secular marketplace. That includes their leaders’ publicly stated opposition to abortion.
The church-state issue now in the spotlight involves three-pronged rules negotiated last year between the Obama administration and various outside groups.
Under the changes, churches and houses of worship are completely exempt from the contraception mandate.
Other nonprofit, religiously affiliated groups, such as church-run hospitals, parochial schools and charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor, must either offer coverage, or have a third-party insurer provide separate benefits without the employer’s direct involvement.
Lawsuits in those cases are pending in several federal appeals courts across the country.
The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga claims are in yet another Obamacare category: for-profit corporations claiming a religion-based exemption.
These suits follow the high court’s decision two years ago that narrowly upheld the key funding provision of the health care law, a blockbuster ruling affirming that most Americans would be required to purchase insurance or pay a financial penalty, the so-called individual mandate.
The constitutional debate shifts to the separate employer mandates and whether corporations themselves enjoy the same First Amendment rights as individuals.
Three federal appeals courts around the country have struck down the contraception coverage rule, while two other appeals courts have upheld it. That “circuit split” made the upcoming Supreme Court review almost certain.
By Bill Mears