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The U.S. Supreme Court will take on the Affordable Care Act again, this time deciding whether the controversial law violates the religious freedom rights of for-profit businesses that don't want to provide contraceptive coverage to employees.
More than 40 companies have sued the government over the birth-control mandate. The justices will consider two of those cases: one that the government lost against national arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby Inc. and another where it won against Pennsylvania cabinet-maker Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp.
The court said the cases will be combined for arguments, probably in late March. A decision should come by late June.
The cases present another legal test for President Obama's health care law and could determine whether the for-profit businesses can assert religious freedom rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In both cases, the companies claim that providing certain types of contraceptives would violate their faith.
But how the justices rule could have a more far-reaching impact. The mandate has generated 40 additional lawsuits by nonprofit religious organizations, such as colleges, making similar religious freedom claims against the government because the ACA requires them to provide birth control to their employees.
""You’ve got a well-known teaching of the country’s largest religious organizations and a piece of the president’s domestic policy. So, politically and religiously, the stakes are very high," said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virgina law professor and religious freedom scholar.
He added that the court's eventual ruling could also provide a "principle" around which states could resolve discrimination claims for small businesses that choose not to accommodate marriages of same-sex couples for religious reasons.
"If (the justices) say Hobby Lobby is protected, then a little husband-and-wife photography shop is an easy case to decide," he said, referring to a New Mexico photographer who was found in violation of the state's nondiscrimination law for not shooting a lesbian couples' ceremony. The photographer has appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hobby Lobby was the first of 44 for-profit businesses to sue the government over the ACA's mandate that requires most employers offering health insurance to their workers to provide a range of preventive health benefits, including contraception.
Their lawsuit describes a company created in 1970 in the Oklahoma City, Okla., garage of its founder, David Green, that infuses the Green family's Christian beliefs into how it operates the business. Christian music plays over the sound system in its 500 stores, which are closed on Sundays. The company also owns the Mardel Christian bookstore chain.
The Greens offer free spiritual counseling to their 13,000 employees, as well as contraceptives under an employee health insurance plan. But Hobby Lobby's plan does not cover Plan B and Ella, two emergency contraceptives, or two types of intrauterine devices (IUDs).
According to legal documents, the Greens' faith dictates that life begins at conception and the birth control methods they don't cover are tantamount to abortion.
Under the Obama administration's health care overhaul, contraception, emergency contraceptives and sterilization are included in the package of cost-free preventative health benefits employers must provide in their health insurance plans.
Conestoga Wood is owned by a Mennonite family that sued the government over the contraception mandate, objecting on religious grounds against providing emergency contraception "that may prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the womb."
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