WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to determine whether Hobby Lobby and a Pennsylvania furniture company can deny their employees federally required birth control coverage that violates the religious beliefs of the company owners.
The high court justices accepted cases that have received conflicting decisions in federal appeals courts. Through the cases, the justices could determine whether the for-profit companies have the constitutional right and the leeway under a federal law to reject the birth control mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act.
A decision on the mandate -- which has been challenged in dozens of cases nationwide -- is expected some time before the court's term ends in June. Experts on both sides of the issue predicted Tuesday that the case could ultimately have far-reaching implications for religious freedom and health care coverage.
Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of crafts stores based in Oklahoma City, is owned by David Green and his family and operated according to the family's Christian beliefs.
The company, and its related Christian bookstore chain, faced millions of dollars in potential fines for refusing to implement the birth control mandate but won a reprieve from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in June that it could challenge the mandate on religious grounds.
Hobby Lobby and the U.S. Justice Department, which is defending the mandate, asked the high court to review the case.
Both sides react
"My family and I are encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide our case," Green, Hobby Lobby's founder and CEO, said Tuesday.
"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."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the birth control coverage mandate on companies with 50 or more employees was legal and "designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor."
"The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women. The administration has already acted to ensure no church or similar religious institution will be forced to provide contraception coverage and has made a commonsense accommodation for nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraception on religious grounds."
Hobby Lobby doesn't object to all of the contraceptives mandated for coverage, only those that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, such as the morning-after pill and intrauterine devices.
The Hobby Lobby case was appealed to the Supreme Court by the Justice Department under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that prevents the government from imposing a "substantial burden" on a person trying to exercise his religion.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the 10th Circuit court ruled that a for-profit corporation's First Amendment rights could be protected just an individual's rights, and it pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed corporations to donate to political campaigns.
However, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion in a Pennsylvania case and ruled against a company owned by a Mennonite Christian family.
The company, which makes kitchen cabinets under the name of Conestoga Wood Specialties, appealed to the Supreme Court and raised First Amendment arguments, in addition to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act arguments raised in the Hobby Lobby case.
This will be the second major challenge to the Affordable Care Act considered by the high court. In 2012, the court upheld the act's mandate on individuals to purchase insurance but struck down the requirement that states expand their Medicaid rolls.
Supporters of the birth control mandate said a ruling for Hobby Lobby would allow employers to discriminate against women and would be a "slippery slope" in regard to other health care coverage.
Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said, "If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the corporations, the ruling will open the door to businesses denying coverage, based on their owners' personal beliefs, for a whole host of other medical procedures to which their employees are entitled -- procedures and treatments like vaccines, surgeries, blood transfusions, or mental health care."
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called the case "the most important religious liberty question in recent years."
He said, "What's at stake in this case is whether or not the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion ... Religious liberty is given to us by God and is inalienable. Let's pray for the justices as they think through this monumentally important case."
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