A Look at the Parties and the Issues in the Hobby Lobby Case

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The Supreme Court

from The New York Times,

The Supreme Court on Monday [rejects contraceptives mandate for some corporations], a part of President Obama’s health care law that requires many employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives. Here is a look at the parties, the lawyers and the issues in the case.

Q. Who are the challengers?

A. The cases were brought by two corporations whose owners say they try to run their businesses on religious principles. One is Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores. The other is Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets. In March, the justices heard a consolidated argument in the two cases, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, No. 13-354, and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell, No. 13-356.

Q. Who argued the cases?

A. Paul D. Clement, a United States solicitor general in the Bush administration, argued for the companies. The current solicitor general, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., represented the government. The two men had faced off two years ago in another challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which focused on its requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty. The court ruled for the Obama administration in that case by a 5-to-4 vote.

Q. What does the challenged law say?

A. A provision put in place under the Affordable Care Act requires many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception.

Q. Does the law apply to all employers?

A. No. Under the law and related regulations, small employers do not need to offer health coverage at all; religious employers like churches are exempt; religiously affiliated groups may claim an exemption; and some insurance plans that had not previously offered the coverage are grandfathered. Last June, a federal judge in Tampa, Fla., estimated that a third of Americans are not subject to the requirement that their employers provide coverage for contraceptives.

Q. How does the administration justify the law?

A. In his briefs, Mr. Verrilli told the justices that requiring insurance plans to include comprehensive coverage for contraception promotes public health and ensures that “women have equal access to health care services.” He added that doctors, rather than employers, should decide which form of contraception is best. A supporting brief from the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group, said that many women cannot afford the most effective means of birth control, and that the law will reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions.

Q. What is the companies’ objection?

A. They say that some contraceptive drugs and devices are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent embryos from implanting in the womb. Providing insurance coverage for those forms of contraception would, they say, make them complicit in the practice. They said they had no objection to other forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills and sterilization surgery.

Q. Do for-profit companies and their owners have the right to object on religious grounds?

A. The lower courts are divided over whether for-profit corporations have rights under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and the federal law at the heart of the contraceptives case, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In weighing the question, the Supreme Court may have considered whether its 2010 decision in Citizens United, which said corporations have free speech rights under the First Amendment, suggests that they also have the right to religious liberty.

Q. What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

A. The law was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that declined to recognize religious exceptions under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause to generally applicable laws. Congress effectively reversed that decision. “What this law basically says,” President Bill Clinton said before signing the bill, “is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.”

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