WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear a pair of cases on whether corporations can refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraception to their workers based on the religious beliefs of the corporations’ owners.
The cases present a new challenge to President Obama’s health care law. The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld another part of the law, one that requires most Americans to obtain insurance or pay a penalty.
The Obama administration has exempted many religious groups from the law’s requirements for contraception coverage. But it said for-profit corporations could not rely on religious objections to opt out of compliance with the law.
“Our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary . “The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women.”
The lower courts are divided over whether for-profit corporations can object to generally applicable laws on religious liberty grounds.
In June, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled for Hobby Lobby, a corporation owned by a family whose members have said they try to run the business on Christian principles. The company, which operates a chain of arts-and-crafts stores and has more than 15,000 full-time employees of many faiths, objected to a requirement in the health care law requiring large employers to provide their workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for contraception.
Hobby Lobby told the justices that it had no problem with offering coverage for many forms of contraception, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills, and sterilization surgery. But drugs and devices that can prevent embryos from implanting in the womb are another matter, and make it complicit in a form of abortion, the company said.
The law presents companies with difficult choices, Hobby Lobby told the justices. Failing to offer comprehensive coverage could subject it to fines of $1.3 million a day, while dropping insurance coverage for its employees entirely could lead to fines of $26 million a year.
The 10th Circuit ruled that Hobby Lobby was a “person” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and that its religious beliefs had been compromised without good reason.
Kyle Duncan, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby, said he was pleased that the justices had agreed to resolve the split among the federal appeals courts. “We hope the Supreme Court will vindicate the rights of family business owners,” he said.
Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said “the right to religious freedom belongs to individuals, not for-profit institutions.”
“These for-profit companies,” she said, “are no more entitled to deny women insurance coverage for essential health care than they are to dictate how any of us can and cannot spend our paychecks.”
In a statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said: “Corporations should not be able to deny coverage for women’s reproductive health services based on this exemption. We are reviewing our options to determine how we can most effectively weigh in on this important issue concerning both women’s health and equality in the workplace.”
Options include filing an amicus brief. Massachusetts law includes its own mandate that covers birth control in state-licenses plans.
In July, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled against the Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., which makes wood cabinets and is owned by a Mennonite family that had similar objections to the law. The court concluded that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise.”
David Cortman, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the company and its owners, said the ruling was misguided.
“The administration has no business forcing citizens to make a choice between making a living and living free,” he said.
The Third Circuit rejected an analogy to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to free speech. Though the First Amendment also protects the free exercise of religion, Judge Robert E. Cowen wrote for the majority of a divided three-judge panel, “it does not automatically follow that all clauses of the First Amendment must be interpreted identically.”
But a five-judge majority of an eight-judge panel of the 10th Circuit, in the Hobby Lobby case, said that “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United” extended to religious freedom.
A dissenting member of the court, Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, wrote that the majority’s approach was “nothing short of a radical revision of First Amendment law.”