Obamacare’s Religious Freedom Question Dumped on Supreme Court

Supreme Court

Source: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito, and Elena Kagan. Bottom row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

One of the explicit purposes of the health care reform was to improve the quality of health insurance policies. To guarantee that insurers no longer offer so-called bare bones plans, the Affordable Care Act mandated that policies provide 10 essential benefits, including mental health care and contraceptives.

While constructed as a sweeping attempt to ensure all Americans have access to the medical services they need without having to pay an unaffordable premium, religious groups have seen the mandated insurance coverage of contraceptives as a threat to religious freedom. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to examine another legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act. At the most basic level, the court’s ruling will decide whether employers with religious objections to birth control may refuse to provide their workers with insurance that offers contraceptive coverage.

But the case will also provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to examine complex legal and constitutional questions about religious freedom, the equality of female workers, and whether any protections exist in the Constitution or in federal statutes that excuse private, for-profit corporations from complying with the law because of an owner’s religious beliefs.

These questions have preoccupied lower courts this year, and they will engross the Supreme Court in coming months; oral arguments will likely be held in March, with a ruling coming in late June.

The Supreme Court takes cases when they involve questions related to constitutional law or a federal statute. Regarding the issue of contraceptive coverage and the Affordable Care Act’s requirement, two lower courts returned opposite rulings on whether the mandate is constitutional, and the now the question is up for the review with the Supreme Court.

This is not the first occasion the future of the health care reform has been put in the hands of the highest U.S. court. In July 2012, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan in deciding that the health care law was a valid exercise of Congress’s power to tax, meaning the government could require individuals to purchase insurance or face a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of adjusted income, whichever is greater.

Nearly 50 pending lawsuits have currently been filed in federal court from various corporations challenging the birth control coverage mandate, and three federal appeals courts have struck down the contraception coverage rule, while two other appeal courts have upheld it. The fact that there was a “circuit split” made a Supreme Court review even more likely, even though the court agreed to hear only two particular cases involving for-profit corporations.

Among the plaintiffs is Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of approximately 500 arts and crafts stores that employ 13,000 full-time workers.

CNN reports that chain owners David Green and his family claim the mandate for comprehensive coverage violates their Christian beliefs because some of the contraception that would be provided prevents human embryos from being implanted in the womb, an act that is equivalent to abortion, according to the Green family’s beliefs. Companies that don’t provide the coverage would face fines of up to $1.3 million per day, CNN says.

The fact that the Supreme Court chose to hear the case is a “major step” for the Green family, and the coming oral arguments will be “an important fight for Americans’ religious liberty,” the lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby, Kyle Duncan, told CNN.

Of course, the White House has not been silent on the issue. “The health care law puts women and families in control of their health care by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth control, free of charge. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration asked the Supreme Court to consider a legal challenge to the health care law’s requirement that for-profit corporations include birth control coverage in insurance available to their employees,” read a statement by the White House Office of the Press Secretary regarding Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.

The statement continued: “We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree.” The title of the lawsuit refers to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The Obama administration has already created rules to exempt certain nonprofits and religiously affiliated organizations from the contraceptive requirements, and in those cases, women can receive coverage from another company at no additional cost.

In determining whether non-religious organizations should be exempt from the contraceptive insurance mandate, the Supreme Court will have to interpret the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Justices will have to decide whether the federal law’s protections apply to companies, churches, and universities, or only to “persons.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit Court in Denver ruled that forcing a company to offer contraceptive coverage would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That court relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a ruling that determined corporations had political speech rights just as individuals do. “We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote for the majority.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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