Supreme Court hears Hobby Lobby ACA challenge

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(Bloomberg) — A divided U.S. Supreme Court debated whether companies can assert religious rights, hearing arguments in an ideological clash over President Barack Obama’s health care law and rules that promote contraceptive coverage.

The 90-minute session marked the Supreme Court’s first look at the law since the justices upheld its core provisions in 2012. At issue is whether two family-owned companies are entitled to a religious exemption from the requirement that employers cover birth control as part of worker-insurance plans

Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties are asking the court to give for-profit corporations the same religious freedoms as individuals, with potentially sweeping rights to opt out of laws they say are immoral. A victory for the companies would put a dent in a health-care law that remains under siege on multiple fronts.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the court’s deciding vote in divisive cases, asked questions of both sides and didn’t give a clear indication which way he will vote.

Kennedy at one point questioned whether the religious views of employers could trump the rights of employees to receive contraceptive coverage. Those workers “may not agree” with their employer’s religious views, he said.

Later, he told an Obama administration lawyer that, under his argument, companies “could be forced in principle to pay for abortions.”

Demonstrations Outside

The court heard arguments as hundreds of demonstrators, representing both sides of the issue, gathered outside the building in a rare March snowstorm in the nation’s capital.

A half-mile away, a federal appeals court weighed a case that may pose an even bigger threat to the health care law. In that case, opponents of the law contend that people who buy insurance on federally run exchanges aren’t eligible for tax credits to cut their premiums.

The Supreme Court four years ago expanded corporate speech rights under the First Amendment in the Citizens United campaign-finance case. The Hobby Lobby dispute focuses on the First Amendment’s separate guarantee of “free exercise” of religion, along with a 1993 federal religious-rights law.

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