(Bloomberg) A divided U.S. Supreme Court debated whether companies can assert religious rights, hearing arguments in an ideological clash over President Barack Obamas health care law and rules that promote contraceptive coverage.
The 90-minute session marked the Supreme Courts 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 courts deciding vote in divisive cases, asked questions of both sides and didnt 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 employers 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.
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 nations 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 arent 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 Amendments separate guarantee of free exercise of religion, along with a 1993 federal religious-rights law.
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