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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new challenge to a portion of President Obama's Affordable Care Act. This time, the issue is whether for-profit corporations, citing religious objections, may refuse to provide contraceptive services and health care plans to employees.

In the law, Congress required large employers to provide a range of health care services - including contraception - without requiring co-payments. Religious nonprofits were exempted from this requirement, but not for-profit corporations. Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The lead plaintiff before the court is Hobby Lobby, a chain of 500 arts and crafts stores with 13,000 employees. The owners are conservative Christians who object to some forms of birth control, and contend that the mandate thus abridges their religious rights in violation of both the Constitution and federal law. David Green, the founder of the company, appears in an online video to explain his company's position.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONLINE VIDEO)

DAVID GREEN: We do everything we possibly can to be a help to our employees of how - that they can structure their life based on biblical principles.

TOTENBERG: Representing the company, lawyer Kyle Duncan argues that the contraception mandate coerces the corporate owners to violate their religious beliefs.

KYLE DUNCAN: That forces them to choose between violating their faith or exposing their businesses to severe consequences, including potentially severe fines.

TOTENBERG: A federal appeals court based in Denver agreed. The judges on that court pointed to the Supreme Court's controversial 2010 decision declaring that corporations have the same right as individuals, when it comes to spending money on political campaigns. In view of that decision, said the appeals court judges, they could see no reason that corporations would not be similarly entitled to exercise their religious beliefs as well.

The Obama administration, however, points to a long line of Supreme Court cases that take a contrary view. No court has ever found a for-profit company to be a religious organization for purposes of federal law, the Justice Department said in its briefs. Government would be unable to function, the department suggested, if children could be exempt from child labor laws on religious grounds, for example, or employers refused to pay taxes because of religious objections to how the money was spent.

Indeed, women's rights advocates see the no co-pay birth control provision as a civil rights measure for women, ensuring that women can afford to make reproductive decisions for themselves. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards.

CECILE RICHARDS: These cases would create a very slippery slope, giving for-profit employers their own right to impose their own medical preferences on their employees. I mean, the decision about whether to use birth control should be between a woman and her doctor, and no employer should be able to take that right away.

TOTENBERG: All of these views, and more, will be on full display this spring, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in Hobby Lobby and a companion case. A decision is expected by summer.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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