The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to review whether the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate, which requires that group insurance plans cover birth control, interferes with some employers’ right to freely exercise their religion. The Supreme Court’s decision, once reached, could have a profound impact on how the American public receives contraception under the new health law.
“This case presents, front and center for the justices to decide, a question that’s been open for a long time: Do companies, not just people and churches, have religious freedom?” said Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court expert, according to NBC News. Though there are about 40 pending lawsuits about the contraceptive coverage provision, the Court chose to focus on two cases for its review, according to BBC News. One suit was brought by Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, which won in lower court rulings. The second suit was brought by Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a company that lost in lower courts. Both companies are secular, for-profit corporations. And they both assert that the contraceptive coverage mandate violates their rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act which says that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, corporations must either comply with the contraceptive coverage provision or pay a substantial financial penalty. The companies say that the law requires religious employers to choose between their faith and paying a fine that could potentially cripple their businesses. David Green, founder of Hobby Lobby Stores, says that his business is not separate from his personal beliefs, but actually a reflection of his faith. Consequently, offering contraceptive coverage to his employees places a substantial burden on the exercise of his religion.
“We believe wholeheartedly that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has been successful. Therefore we seek to honor Him in all that we do,” Green said, according to NBC News. But White House press secretary Jay Carney says that the interests of the American people, particularly women, is of paramount importance when considering the legality of the birth control mandate. “We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” Carney said, according to the Washington Post. “As a general matter, our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor. The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women.”
Of course, whatever the Court decides will affect the status of the Affordable Care Act, which has taken a huge public relations blow since the rocky launch of its website in October. If the court upholds the contraceptive coverage provision, it will be a triumph for the new health law and its supporters. It is also a case that will have a profound impact on the way America construes religious freedom for years to come. “It’s in the important context of Obamacare, so the nation is paying attention,” said Goldstein. “And the question of whether these companies can assert religious freedoms is one that will have importance for centuries.”