Supreme Court Faces Challenge Over Contraception Mandate

Thursday, 26 Dec 2013 11:31 AM

By Lisa Barron

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The Supreme Court faces a tough challenge ahead as it decides on the Obamacare contraception mandate, using legal precedent to weigh religious freedom against government ordinances.

Analysts say it is difficult to predict how the nine justices will rule after federal appeals courts across the country have not been able to agree on whether the Obama administration can force for-profit companies to insure birth control, reports the Washington Times.

New Medicare Warning: Obamacare Rule Changes Coming

The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear challenges brought by two businesses that object to the mandate on religious grounds.

One of the cases involves Hobby Lobby Inc., an Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees, which won in the lower courts. The other is an appeal from Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania company that employs 950 people in making wood cabinets, whose claims have been rejected by lower courts.

At issue is the requirement that employers who provide health insurance to their employees offer a full range of preventive benefits.

"I think this will really be an issue of religious freedom, divorced as much as possible from the specific content of the objectionable requirement," Holly Lynch, a healthcare policy and bioethics specialist at Harvard Law School, told the Times.

Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies, pointed to the 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, when it ruled that Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to American Indians fired for using peyote, even though it was part of a religious ritual.

Referring to Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion, Burrus told the Times, "The criticism he got from the religious community on that was huge."

On the other hand, after Congress passed the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993, noted Randy Barnett, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center, the court used the law to uphold the rights of a New Mexico church to use sacramental tea seized by federal agents because it had an illegal hallucinogen.

Barnett said Chief Justice John Roberts applied the act in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente to rule that the government failed to prove that banning use of the tea met a compelling government interest.

The high court upheld virtually all of the healthcare reform law in 2012, but the administration has unilaterally delayed parts of the bill leading up to its implementation.

In July, the administration delayed the employer mandate until 2015, and last month the president announced changes to the law that allow insurance companies to continue offering policies that don't meet all of its requirements.

The Supreme Court, though, will have the final say on the contraception mandate, which was upheld Monday in a ruling against Catholic schools in Washington, D.C.  but not in an earlier ruling in favor of Catholic educational institutions in New York City.

Courts in Chicago and Denver had previously ruled the mandate may violate religious freedom, while courts in Philadelphia and Cincinnati sided with the government.

Oral arguments in the Supreme Court are likely to be heard in March, with a ruling due by June.

New Medicare Warning: Obamacare Rule Changes Coming

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