The biggest case of the Supreme Court’s term involves a three-headed, hot-button appeal combining abortion rights, religious liberty, and Obamacare. It’s also the last one, and a ruling is due on Monday.
The legal and social pique may not reach the heights of two years ago when the justices narrowly preserved the Affordable Care Act and its key funding provision in a blockbuster ruling.
But the stakes are still large, and the decision could serve as a primer for other pending challenges to the health law championed by President Barack Obama and in play as a campaign issue this midterm season.
The issue before the justices is whether Obamacare can mandate contraception coverage specifically for certain businesses that object for religious reasons.
“This case isn’t that practically important, except for the employees and businesses involved. There just aren’t a huge number of those,” said Thomas Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog.com and a Washington appellate attorney.
“But everyone can agree the social questions presented– about when people can follow their religious convictions, and when people are entitled to contraception care– are truly important,” he said.
Hundreds of advocates and demonstrators representing both sides are expected to rally in front of the courthouse on Capitol Hill.
The section of law in dispute requires for-profit employers of a certain size to offer insurance benefits for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.
A number of companies equate some of the covered drugs, such as the so-called “morning-after” pill, as causing abortion.
The specific question presented was whether these companies can refuse, on the sincere claim it would violate their owners’ long-established moral beliefs.
The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“How does a corporation exercise religion?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor at March’s oral arguments, summarizing perhaps the key constitutional question at hand.
“This is a religious question and it’s a moral question,” added Justice Samuel Alito, suggesting the businesses have such a right. “You want us to provide a definitive secular answer.”
Conestoga, Hobby Lobby
The justices have a good deal of discretion to frame the competing issues and could reach a limited “compromise” through narrow statutory interpretation.
They could conclude individual owners can make the religious freedom claim, bypassing the corporate rights argument, but still give female workers the flexibility to get covered drugs.
The court weighed two related appeals from Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinet maker, and Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based retail giant that will have more than 700 arts-and-crafts stores nationwide by year’s end.
Both corporations emphasized their desire to operate in harmony with biblical principles while competing in a secular marketplace. That includes their leaders’ publicly stated opposition to abortion.
The case presented a complex mix of legal, regulatory, and constitutional concerns over such thorny issues as faith, abortion, corporate power, executive agency discretion, and congressional intent.
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