The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases arguing opposite sides of the debate on an Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision requiring employer-provided health insurance to cover birth control.
Federal circuit courts have split on the issue.
In June, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal law allows a business owned by evangelical Christians to be exempt from the ACA’s contraceptive mandate because of the owners’ sincerely held religious objections. But in July, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a for-profit, secular corporation lacks a right to religious freedom that would allow it to bypass the ACA requirement, despite the owners’ personal religious beliefs.
Two cases combined
In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores—the 10th Circuit case—the government will try to persuade the Supreme Court that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) does not give a corporation the right to refuse on religious grounds to comply with the ACA's contraceptive mandate.
In Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius—the 3rd Circuit case—the Mennonite owners of a Pennsylvania furniture manufacturer will argue that both they and the business itself have rights that permit them to refuse to offer coverage that pays for contraception, based both on the First Amendment and on the RFRA.
The Supreme Court will jointly hear both cases in oral arguments scheduled for March 2014, with a decision scheduled for June 27, the final day of the Court’s 2013-14 term.
In both cases, the business owners say they do not object to providing insurance that covers routine birth control. However, they don’t want to have to pay for what they call “abortifacients”—emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella, as well as some intrauterine devices. The Supreme Court declined to review a case in which a Michigan company objected to covering any kind of birth control.
The RFRA provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.
The “Sebelius” named in the cases is Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose cabinet department is responsible for administering and enforcing the ACA.
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