Oral arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court cases began today brought by two for-profit corporations that claimed they have a right to deny their employees birth control under their health insurance plans. The companies are Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores with 21,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet manufacturer.
According to Planned Parenthood, what the Court decides could set a dangerous precedent for millions. This would allow businesses to deny their employees a whole host of other medical procedures to which they are legally entitled, based solely on their personal beliefs—procedures and treatments like vaccines, surgeries, blood transfusions, or mental health care.
A key provision of the health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama came under harsh criticism from the conservative majority of the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The justices debated a hotly contested issue testing the limits of government-mandated contraception coverage, specifically involving for-profit corporations that object to it for religious reasons.
The justices appeared divided along ideological lines in a 90-minute oral argument, with the federal government offering a spirited defense of the Affordable Care Act.
"How does a corporation exercise religion?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor, summarizing perhaps the key constitutional question at hand.
"This is a religious question," said Justice Samuel Alito, suggesting the businesses have such a right. "You want us to provide a definitive secular answer."
Before the hearing began, hundreds of demonstrators representing both sides of the issue rallied in front of the courthouse on Capitol Hill.
The court is reviewing provisions of the Affordable Care Act requiring for-profit employers of a certain size to offer insurance benefits for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.
At issue is whether certain companies can refuse to do so on the sincere claim it would violate their owners' long-established personal beliefs.
Two separate appeals are being heard together.
The outcome was uncertain, but the court could cast preliminary votes later this week. A final written ruling is expected by late June.
The cases involve two appeals from Conestoga Wood Specialties. The companion legal challenge comes from Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based arts and crafts retail giant. The Hahn family owns Conestoga and the Green family owns Hobby Lobby.
Both corporations emphasize 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 cases present a complex mix of legal, regulatory, and constitutional concerns— over such hot-button issues as faith, abortion, corporate power, executive agency discretion, and congressional intent.