Obamacare On Trial: Do For-Profit Companies Have Religious Rights?

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Supreme Court

Oral arguments held Tuesday morning before the Supreme Court made clear that the nine-judge panel’s interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will guide the ruling on whether the Affordable Care Act’s mandated contraceptive coverage is constitutional. Already, it appears the court is divided on the issue after the first day’s proceedings, with the more conservative justices — Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas — appearing sympathetic to the challengers’ arguments, while the three female justices — Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — are seemingly supportive of the government’s case. Justice Anthony Kennedy will likely cast the deciding vote.

“How does a corporation exercise religion?” asked Justice Sotomayor during the 90-minute court session, summarizing what might be the key constitutional question in the lawsuit. “This is a religious question,” said Justice Samuel Alito, suggesting that for-profit entities have such a right. “You want us to provide a definitive secular answer.”

One of the explicit purposes of the healthcare reform was to improve the quality of health insurance policies. To guarantee that insurers no longer offer the so-called bare bones plans, the Affordable Care Act mandated the policies provide ten essential benefits, including mental healthcare and contraceptives. While ostensibly a sweeping attempt to ensure all Americans have access to the services they need without having to pay an unaffordable premium, religious groups have seen the mandated insurance coverage of contraceptives as a threat to religious freedom.

At the most basic level, the court’s ruling will decide whether employers with religious objections to birth control may refuse to provide their workers with insurance that offers contraceptive coverage. But the case will also provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity examine complex legal and constitutional questions about religious freedom, the equality of female workers, and whether any protections exist in the constitution or in federal statutes that excuse private, for-profit corporations from complying with the law because of their owner’s religious beliefs.

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