Justices to Decide On Companies’ Religious Rights

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Two For-Profit Companies Cite Religious Grounds in Saying They Shouldn’t Be Bound by the Rule.

The Supreme Court said it would decide whether businesses, like people, have a right to religious expression, in cases challenging the federal health law’s mandate that employers provide contraceptive coverage to female employees.

The high court upheld most of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in a June 2012 decision. But lower courts have split since then on whether contraceptive coverage must be included in minimum benefits packages.

The Obama administration has exempted religiously affiliated nonprofit employers, such as Catholic hospitals, from financing such coverage. At the same time, it held that for-profit companies remain bound by the requirement, regardless of the beliefs espoused by their owners.

The justices on Tuesday consolidated into a single argument two appellate rulings that reached opposite conclusions. The cases are expected to be heard in late March, with a decision announced by June.

The companies challenging the rule are Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., an Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., an East Earl, Pa., manufacturer of kitchen cabinet doors.

The cases hold implications beyond the health law. They carry the potential of expanding First Amendment rights for corporations, a concept the Supreme Court embraced in the 2010 opinion known as Citizens United, which found that corporations held political speech rights akin to those of individuals. This time, the question involves whether corporations have similar rights to religious expression.

In July, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Philadelphia, found that “secular, for-profit corporations cannot engage in religious exercise.” While Conestoga’s Mennonite owners, the Hahn family, may have a sincere religious objection to contraceptives that may act upon the fertilized egg, such as the so-called morning after pill, the corporation they operated had no beliefs of its own, the court found.

“As the Hahns have decided to utilize the corporate form, they cannot ‘move freely between corporate and individual status to gain the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the respective forms,’ ” the Third Circuit ruled, citing an earlier case. It rejected the argument that the Citizens United ruling extended religious, as well as political, rights to corporations.

A month earlier, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Denver, reached the opposite conclusion, viewing a corporation as a form of association that, regardless of its profit-seeking status, can espouse religious beliefs.

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