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Supreme Court weighs birth control coverage on behalf of Hobby Lobby, other family-owned companies

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 8:47 a.m. MDT

One key issue before the justices is whether profit-making corporations may assert religious beliefs under the 1993 religious freedom law or the First Amendment provision guaranteeing Americans the right to believe and worship as they choose. The court could skirt that issue by finding that the individuals who own the businesses have the right to object.

The justices still would have to decide whether the birth control requirement really impinges on religious freedom, and if so, whether the government makes a persuasive case that the policy is important and is put in place in the least objectionable way possible.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood say the burden they face is clear in the $100-a-day fine for each employee they would have to pay for not complying with the contraception provision. By contrast, businesses that choose not to offer health insurance at all can pay a tax of $2,000 a year for each employee.

One potentially underemphasized aspect of the case is that there is no requirement that employers offer health insurance. They could pay the tax, which will be cheaper in many instances, according to Georgetown University's Martin Lederman, who has advanced the argument.

But Mark Rienzi, a Catholic University professor who is on the Hobby Lobby legal team, said Hobby Lobby would be at a competitive disadvantage with other employers who offer health insurance. "Their view is and has always been that they want to take really good care of their employees and their families," Rienzi said.

The companies 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. There is dispute over whether any of these contraceptives works by preventing implantation, but the administration has not raised that issue in this case.

Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter @shermancourt

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