Latest News & Current Events

Obamacare contraception arguments head to Supreme court

Under new ACA regulations, employers are required to offer their employees insurance plans that meet a range of basic requirements – one of which, controversially, is access to all FDA-approved contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives like Plan B (the "morning-after pill"), with zero co-pay.

Devout business owners say providing health plans that offer emergency contraceptives would violate their religious principles. Dozens of businesses have filed suit against the requirements, and two that have split lower courts make it to the nation's highest court today: Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores, and Conestaga Wood Specialties v Sebelius.

Hobby Lobby is an arts-and-crafts chain based in Oklahoma that boasts over 500 locations nationwide and tens of thousands of employees. It is a private, for-profit corporation whose owners, the Green family, are Southern Baptists and claim to run their company according to their religious principles. As the Supreme Court Blog - Scotusblog explains:

"The owners and their stores do not object to every part of the contraceptive mandate, but they do object to the use of any drugs or intrauterine devices that — in the words of their lawyers — 'end human life after conception.'

They have estimated that, if they follow their faith and violate the mandate, they face fines of about $1.3m a day, or almost $475m a year. They believe that cancelling their health plan to avoid obeying the mandate would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other employers. They do not believe that the government can force them to make such choices".

Conestaga Wood Specialties, meanwhile, is a Pennsylvania-based company with operations in several states that makes cabinets and other wood products and boasts about 900 employees. It argues that sticking to its religious beliefs would cost the company $35m in annual fines.

The companies argue that the mandate violates their first amendment religious freedom rights and, in statutory law, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that "government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability." That use of "person" in the text brings the case to another, all-too-familiar and controversial legal principle: the breadth of "corporate personhood." - According to Scotusblog:

"In a manner of speaking, these issues pose the question — a topic of energetic debate in current American political and social discourse — of whether corporations are “people.” The first amendment protects the rights “of the people,” and the 1993 law protects the religious rights of “persons.” Do profit-making companies qualify as either?"

Aside from whether corporations do have any religious rights, as such, the cases also raise the question whether the religious rights of their owners — real people, who undeniably can act according to their faith — are violated by the requirement that their companies obey the contraceptive mandate. Ordinarily, in business law, corporations are separate from their owners, but the owners in these cases resist that notion, at least so far as the owners’ religious views actually shape the business of their companies.

So while there's no outcome by which the case could take down the structure of the Affordable Care Act beyond this contraception mandate, it could have far-reaching consequences in terms of the flexibility religious freedom grounds offer private businesses in adhering to government regulations. It may be a matter of how far these (deeply religious) justices are willing to take it. The case will likely be decided sometime near the end of the court's term in June.


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