Supreme Court seems divided over birth control rule

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed divided Tuesday over whether employers’ religious beliefs can free them from a part of the new health care law that requires that they provide coverage of birth control for employees at no extra charge.

The case involves family-owned companies that provide health insurance to their employees, but object to covering certain methods of birth control that they say can work after conception, in violation of their religious beliefs.

The fast-paced 90-minute argument at the court touched on abortion and health care law in general, but focused mainly on the question of whether profit-making businesses have religious rights. The justices have never ruled that way before, but the companies in the Supreme Court case and their backers argue that a 1993 federal law on religious freedom extends to businesses as well as individuals.

The Obama administration and its supporters say a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the businesses also could undermine laws governing immunizations, Social Security taxes and minimum wages.

The outcome could turn on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote. Kennedy voiced concerns both about the rights of female employees and the business owners. Kennedy asked what rights would women have if their employers ordered them to wear burkas, a full-length robe commonly worn by conservative Islamic women.

Later in the 90-minute argument, he seemed troubled about how the logic of the government’s argument would apply to abortions. “A profit corporation could be forced in principle to pay for abortions,” Kennedy said. “Your reasoning would permit it.”

Under the new health care law, health plans must offer a range of preventive services at no extra charge, including all forms of birth control for women that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The three women on the court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, repeatedly questioned Paul Clement, representing the businesses, whether blood transfusions and vaccinations would be subject to the same religious objections if the court ruled for his clients.

“Everything would be piecemeal and nothing would be uniform,” Kagan said.

Clement acknowledged that courts would have to decide on a case-by-case basis, but he said only the kind of family-owned companies he represents would make such claims, not large, multinational corporations. “That’s something that’s not going to the happen in the real world,” Clement said.

Chief Justice John Roberts at one point suggested that the court could limit its ruling to apply to just such companies.

Some of the nearly 50 businesses that have sued over covering contraceptives object to paying for all forms of birth control. But the companies involved in the high court case are willing to cover most methods of contraception, as long as they can exclude drugs or devices that the government says may work after an egg has been fertilized.

The largest company among them is Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., an Oklahoma City-based chain of more than 600 crafts stores in 41 states with more than 15,000 full-time employees. The company is owned by the Green family, evangelical Christians who say they run their business on biblical principles. The Greens also own the Mardel chain of Christian bookstores.

The other company is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of East Earl, Pa. The business is owned by the Hahns, a family of Mennonite Christians, and employs 950 people in making wood cabinets.

Members of the Green and Hahn families were at the court Tuesday, while protesters on both sides congregated outside in an early spring snow.

More in Herald Business Journal

Snohomish County’s campaign to land the 797 takes off

Executive Dave Somers announced the formation of a task force to urge Boeing to build the plane here.

A decade after the recession, pain and fear linger

No matter how good things are now, it’s impossible to forget how the collapse affected people.

Panel: Motorcycle industry in deep trouble and needs help

They have failed to increase sales by making new riders out of women, minorities and millennials.

Costco rises as results display big-box retailer’s resiliency

Their model has worked in the face of heightened competition from online, brick-and-mortar peers.

For modern women, 98-year-old rejection letters still sting

In a stark new video, female Boeing engineers break the silence about past inopportunity.

Tax reform needs the public’s input on spending priorities

The GOP tax plan is a good idea, but the next step should give us a voice on how taxes are spent.

Commentary: GM, Boeing fight a war of words over Mars

Boeing is strongly signaling how crucial deep-space exploration is to its future.

Under cloud of ethics probes, Airbus CEO Enders to step down

He leaves in 2019 after 14 years. Meanwhile, aircraft division CEO Fabrice Bregier leaves in February.

$4.99 sandwich promotion irks some Subway business owners

Management insists that “most franchisees support the promotion.”

Most Read