UNITED STATES - The US Supreme Court said it will address the question of whether a firm can use religious grounds to limit the availability of birth control on its health plan.
The court's nine justices announced they would hear arguments, probably in March or April, in two cases between the US government and firms that object to purchasing health coverage covering certain contraceptive methods.
In the first case, President Barack Obama's administration is challenging the refusal of Hobby Lobby Stores to underwrite coverage for certain contraceptive methods.
"The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women," the White House said in a statement shortly after the Supreme Court decision.
The Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain says it manages its business "in a manner consistent with biblical principles."
Joined by the religious bookstore Mardel, Hobby Lobby has refused to abide by the new health care law's requirement that it provide health insurance coverage for four methods of contraception (two abortive pills and two types of IUDs), or pay a fine.
The chain has not challenged other methods agreed to by the federal government -- contraceptive pills, diaphragms and other barrier methods -- but it objects to the four specific methods on grounds they are in its view comparable to abortion.
In a brief filed with the court, the company argued that "by providing insurance coverage for contraceptives that could prevent a human embryo from implanting in the uterus, they themselves would be morally complicit in 'the death of [an] embryo.'?
A federal appeals court agreed, ruling that the legal requirement was counter to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The Obama health care law exempted churches and other religious organisations from having to provide coverage for birth control.
But the government argued that "no court has ever found a for-profit company to be a religious organisation for purposes of federal law."
The second case to be taken up by the court involves Pennsylvania company Conestoga Wood Specialists, which has appealed to the Supreme Court after losing a case in a lower court.
The firm, which is owned by a Mennonite family, is arguing that it should be considered a religious organisation and included with other groups that have been made exempt from the law.
The White House said it already acted to ensure that "no church or similar religious institution will be forced to provide contraception coverage and has made a commonsense accommodation for non-profit religious organisations that object to contraception on religious grounds."
"These steps protect both women's health and religious beliefs and seek to ensure that women and families -- not their bosses or corporate CEOs -- can make personal health decisions based on their needs and their budgets," the White House said.
Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center, said there was no historic precedent of applying freedom of religion protections to for-profit entities.
"In the entire history of US constitutional law, secular for-profit corporations have never been understood to be protected by the first amendment right to free exercise of religion," Wydra told AFP.
Legal analysts said the Supreme Court would examine whether corporations should be granted free religious expression.
If they are, it "would permit employers to impose their moral views on their employees, setting a dangerous precedent that would be discriminatory towards women and do great harm to women's health and religious freedom in this country," said Donna Barry, head of the Centre for American Progress (CAP).
Anti-abortion and pro-life organisations meanwhile applauded the Supreme Court decision to address the case, which dealt with "fundamental freedom of religion and conscience" issues.
"We hope that once and for all the Supreme Court clearly say that religious freedom in this country must be protected for family businesses," said Kyle Duncan, counsel for Hobby Lobby.