In its Supreme Court brief, the administration said the appeals court ruling was wrong and, if allowed to stand, would make the law "a sword used to deny employees of for-profit commercial enterprises the benefits and protections of generally applicable laws."
Conestoga Wood is owned by a Mennonite family who "object as a matter of conscience to facilitating contraception that may prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the womb."
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the company on its claims under the 1993 law and the Constitution, saying "for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise."
The Supreme Court will have to confront several questions: Can these businesses hold religious beliefs; does the health care provision significantly infringe on those beliefs and, even if the answer to the first two questions is "yes," does the government still have a sufficient interest in guaranteeing women who work for the companies access to contraception?
The justices chose two cases in which the companies object to only a few of the 20 forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In a third case in which the court took no action Tuesday, Michigan-based Autocam Corp. doesn't want to pay for any contraception for its employees because of its owners' Roman Catholic beliefs.
The emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella work mostly by preventing ovulation. The FDA says on its website that Plan B "may also work by preventing fertilization of an egg ... or by preventing attachment (implantation) to the womb (uterus)," while Ella also may work by changing the lining of the uterus so as to prevent implantation.
Hobby Lobby specifically argues that two intrauterine devices (IUDs) also may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. The company's owners say they believe life begins at conception, and they oppose only birth control methods that can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, but not other forms of contraception.
In siding with the administration, several women's groups rejected what they see as efforts by the businesses to come between women and their doctors.
The health care law's inclusion of contraception among preventive health benefits was a major victory in a decades-long fight for equal coverage for women's reproductive health care needs, said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
Citing the example of IUDs, Greenberger said the devices may be the safest, most effective way to prevent pregnancy for women who cannot take the birth control pill. But at $500 to $1,000 for an IUD, "the cost can be prohibitive," she said.
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