US top court weighs religious rights over birth control

WASHINGTON - Hobby Lobby's 556 arts and crafts stores across the United States are closed on Sundays, and billionaire CEO David Green says the chain's true owner is God.

His religious beliefs put him at odds with health care laws demanding the company provide contraceptive options in its employee health plans. And so US Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments Tuesday in a high-stakes religious freedom case brought by Green's firm.

Green says his company, which follows "biblical principles" and thanks "God's grace and provision" for its success, cannot comply with the Affordable Care Act rules brought about by President Barack Obama's sweeping health care overhaul.

Green is defending his company's objections to requirements it provide specific emergency contraceptives and intrauterine devices to its 28,000 employees.

"These abortion-causing drugs go against our faith and our family is now being forced to choose between following the laws of the land that we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful and have supported our family and thousands of our employees and their families," Green has said.

"We simply cannot abandon our religious beliefs to comply with this mandate."

The so-called Obamacare law has been the subject of fierce criticism since its shaky introduction in October, and companies have filed dozens of lawsuits in federal courts challenging the law's birth control coverage.

Green's religious freedom case, which marks the second time the Supreme Court is examining a challenge to the health law, could have broad implications for other companies claiming they are entitled to the same religious protections as churches or people.

Although Hobby Lobby does cover most types of contraception in its employee health plan, it equates certain emergency contraceptives - required under Obama's health care law, such as the morning-after pill - with abortion .

Hobby Lobby's Christian education business Mardel is also part of the suit, which is being heard alongside another from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker whose owners say they run the company based on their Mennonite Christian values.

'Less solid ground'

The Obama administration, which has exempted religious congregations from the contraceptive rule, says that a for-profit company such as Hobby Lobby does not enjoy the same religious protections afforded to individuals under the US Constitution's First Amendment.

"Throughout our nation's history, corporations have been treated differently than individuals when it comes to fundamental, personal rights of conscience and human dignity," said lawyers for the Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive legal group.

"The First Amendment's free-exercise guarantee has always been viewed as a purely personal liberty."

But lawyers challenging the Obama administration on behalf of Conestoga said the requirement was government intrusion into private decisions.

"Law doesn't exclude religion from family businesses," Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Matt Bowman said in a National Review op-ed.

"Religion is excluded by secular hostility devoid of legal authority, and by a federal government willing to bulldoze any obstacle - even constitutionally protected freedoms - if it stands between the government and intimate control over our everyday activities."

Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is defending Hobby Lobby, said that "what is at stake here is whether you're able to keep your religious freedom when you open your family business."

Green scored a victory in June when the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado ruled that "associations" and not just individuals were entitled to religious freedoms.

But if Hobby Lobby wins its Supreme Court challenge, "that would mark a defeat for the government and for access to contraception, to be sure," said Steven Schwinn of John Marshall Law School.

"Without the contraception requirements, the act itself necessarily stands on somewhat less solid ground."

To decide the case, the Supreme Court justices will examine claims that the contraception provision violates the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal statute that prevents laws from hampering the free exercise of religion.

The court, which often sides with businesses, will also have to look back at its 2010 Citizens United decision in which it found that corporations had free speech rights that shield them from political-spending limits.

A decision is expected in late June.