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Supreme Court to hear 2 cases involving Obamacare contraception mandate

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26 2013 8:05 p.m. MST

But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Conestoga saying "for profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise."

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals saw it differently, however, ruling that Hobby Lobby has religious liberty as well as free speech rights that are protected under the 1993 RFRA — just as are the rights of individuals.

In appealing the 10th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court, the government's brief argues that RFRA only protects individual conscience and that "(business owners) cannot ‘move freely between corporate and individual status to gain the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the respective forms.’  ”

What's at stake

With lower courts split on whether profit-making businesses can assert religious freedom rights, legal scholars and attorneys involved in the cases expected the high court to take on at least one of the cases. The court did not take action Tuesday on a third appeal, this one from Autocam, a Michigan-based automotive and medical products manufacturer whose owners' Roman Catholic beliefs prohibit any form of artificial birth control.

Deciding whether businesses have protected religious beliefs is one of several questions the justices will need to answer in their ruling on the contraception mandate cases. Other issues include whether the mandate significantly burdens the practice of those beliefs, whether the government's interest in guaranteeing employees access to contraception outweighs the companies' religious freedom, and whether less-restrictive methods are available to provide contraceptive coverage to all employees.

“My family and I are encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide our case,” Green, Hobby Lobby founder and CEO, said in a statement. “This legal challenge has always remained about one thing and one thing only: the right of our family businesses to live out our sincere and deeply held religious convictions as guaranteed by the law and the Constitution. Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law.”

Supporters of the government's position issued statements Tuesday saying that granting religious freedom rights to businesses would allow owners to impose their personal religious beliefs on their employees, particularly women who seek the preventative care benefits offered under the ACA.

“In more than 225 years since the ratification of the Constitution, the court has never held that a secular for-profit corporation has the right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, and it shouldn't start now," said a statement from the Constitutional Accountability Center.

The Obama administration didn't comment on the specifics of the cases, but said an objective of the ACA's preventative care provision is to ensure a woman's health care decisions are between her and her physician.

"The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

This is the second time the court has addressed the president's health care law. In 2012, a divided court upheld the ACA's penalty for most individuals who don't obtain health insurance.

Out of the roughly 40 for-profit lawsuits against the government, the lower courts have issued 32 injunctions against government enforcement of the birth control mandate. The injunctions protect plaintiffs from having to pay hefty government fines for not complying with the mandate while their cases are pending.

For Hobby Lobby, the largest of the companies suing over the mandate, the fines would total $1.3 million a day — an indication of what's at stake financially for the national chain and its employees.

"I don't know, there are a lot of moving parts," Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said in September when asked what the company would do if it loses its case against the government. "All I can tell you is what we won't do. … pay for abortifacients for our employees."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @deseretbrown

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