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I'm Robert Siegel.
It's snowed in Washington today, but that didn't stop crowds of people from voicing their views on the steps of the United States Supreme Court.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Back off, boss. My health can't wait. Women must decide their fate. Real health care respects life. Real health care respects life.
SIEGEL: At issue before the court today were the Affordable Care Act and coverage for contraception. Specifically, can a for-profit corporation cite religious objections and refuse to include contraception in a basic health plan? Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The lead challenger in the case is the Hobby Lobby Corporation, a chain of 500 arts and crafts stores that has 13,000 employees. Its owners object to two forms of contraception - IUDs and morning-after pills - which they view as a form of early abortion. Co-founder Barbara Green is wife of the CEO.
BARBARA GREEN: The choice that the government has forced on us is unfair and not in keeping with the history of our great nation founded on religious freedom.
TOTENBERG: Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards sees things very differently.
CECILE RICHARDS: What's at stake in this case is whether millions of women and their right to preventive care, including birth control, is trumped by a handful of CEOs who have their own personal opinions about birth control.
TOTENBERG: Inside the high court, opinion was sharply divided, with the women justices clearly supportive of the contraception mandate and a majority of the male justices sounding more skeptical. Hobby Lobby lawyer Paul Clement had barely begun his argument when he was pelted with a series of hypotheticals.
Justice Sotomayor: What about employers who have religious objections to health plans that cover other basic medical procedures - blood transfusions, immunizations, medical products that include pork? Lawyer Clement replied that each would have to be evaluated by the courts to see if it is fully justified and accomplished by the least-restrictive means.
Justice Kagan observed that using that reasoning, an employer might have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws, minimum wage laws, family leave laws and child labor laws to name just a few. Lawyer Clement: Just because claims are being brought doesn't mean they will all win. The courts, he said, can separate the sheep from the goats. Justice Alito: Have any of these claims ever been brought? And have they succeeded? Answer: Very few.
Justice Kagan: With respect, I think that's probably because until now this court has had a different understanding of how to interpret the constitutional and statutory law. Justice Sotomayor: How does a for-profit corporation exercise religion? Whose religion is it? The shareholders? The corporate officers? How much of the business has to be dedicated to religion? And once you go down that road, aren't you having to do something that the court has always resisted, measuring the depth of someone's religious beliefs?
Justice Kagan noted that the Obama health law doesn't require corporate employers to provide insurance. The Hobby Lobby owners could have paid a fine, which she observed is much less than the cost of the insurance. It's a choice, she said. Chief Justice Roberts: I thought part of the religious commitment of the employers here was to provide health insurance. Exactly, replied lawyer Clement. Justice Kennedy: The government sees this case as the employer putting its employees in a disadvantaged position. Do the employer's religious beliefs just trump those of the employees?
Justice Ginsburg noted that in this case, the employer is opposed to IUDs and morning-after pills. But she asks: Supposing your employer objected to all contraceptives, as some employers have? Lawyer Clement conceded the point, agreeing that all contraceptives could be excluded on religious grounds. When the government's chief advocate, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, stepped to the lectern, he faced a different formulation from Justice Kennedy.
Under your view, said Kennedy, a for-profit corporation could be forced, in principle at least, to pay for abortions. Verrilli's answer: There is no law like that on the books that requires for-profit corporations to provide abortions. Chief Justice Roberts: Isn't that what we're talking about here? The Hobby Lobby owners believe that they have to pay for methods of contraception they believe provide abortions. Answer: We don't question their sincere belief, but IUDs and morning-after pills are legal contraception methods approved by the FDA.
Moreover, he said, federal laws that ban funding for abortions do not consider these methods to be abortion. Justice Kennedy raised another issue: You have exempted a whole class of corporations from the provisions of this law. Answer: The only exemptions under the law are for churches, and special accommodations are made for religious non-profits. The special accommodation is that the insurance company provides the contraception coverage to employees, not the religious nonprofit itself.
Justice Breyer: Lawyers for Hobby Lobby have suggested that there's a method of providing contraception coverage for Hobby Lobby employees that's less restrictive of the owner's rights - have the government pay for the coverage. Justice Scalia: This isn't very expensive stuff. Solicitor General Verrilli replied that IUDs are the most expensive - between 500 and $1,000 - and the most effective method of contraception.
Further, he said, even if the government agreed to pay, when corporations invoke religious objections, they would say that signing the forms attesting to their objections would make them complicit. Indeed, some nonprofits have made just that objection. Justice Alito focused on a different question: why for-profit corporations should be barred from making claims that their religious rights are being infringed.
Said Alito: You say they can't ever get their day in court. Solicitor General Verrilli replied that the court has not ever, in any case, recognized such a right for for-profit corporations. Justice Alito, however, wasn't buying the argument. Supposed Congress passed a law barring kosher slaughter methods because it considered them inhumane, he said. Would an incorporated slaughterhouse have no recourse whatsoever? Lawyer Verrilli replied such a law could be challenged as targeted at a particular religion.
And Chief Justice Roberts, perhaps looking for a narrow way to rule in the case, suggested that even if the court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby, that would only affect closely held corporations, not large, publicly traded companies. Within hours of the argument, critics noted that some giant corporations like Dell and Heinz are closely held corporations. A decision in the case is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.