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Supreme Court Weighs Challenge to Contraceptive Coverage Rules

Supreme Court Weighs Challenge to Contraceptive Coverage Rules

March 25, 2014 — The Supreme Court on Tuesday morning heard two businesses' challenges to the federal contraceptive coverage rules, in a case that both sides say could have broad implications for women's rights, religious liberty, corporate law and anti-discrimination protections, the New York Times reports (Liptak, New York Times, 3/24).

The contraceptive coverage rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most for-profit, private businesses to offer contraceptive coverage in their employer-sponsored health plans. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and religiously affiliated not-for-profits are eligible for an accommodation that ensures they do not have to pay for or directly provide the coverage to their employees.

The case before the high court involves two corporations: Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts retail chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet maker. The owners of both companies oppose the use of intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives, which they claim are tantamount to abortifacients, and thus object to offering comprehensive contraceptive coverage to their employees (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/20).

The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases are among several dozen lawsuits against the contraceptive coverage rules. To date, lower courts have been divided in cases they have considered (Pittman, MedPage Today, 3/24). However, in almost all of the cases involving businesses, courts have granted the companies at least temporary reprieves from having to offer the coverage, according to Politico (Haberkorn, Politico, 3/25).

The Supreme Court consolidated the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases for review, with each side granted 45 minutes to make oral arguments beginning at 10 a.m. on Tuesday (Denniston, SCOTUSblog, 3/20).

Impact on Access to Contraception

The impact of the case largely hinges on the breadth of the justices' ruling, which is expected by the end of June (New York Times, 3/24).

Most directly, such a ruling would block tens of thousands of workers whose employers object to contraception from accessing the coverage through their employee health plans (Savage, Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune, 3/24).

In an amicus brief supporting the government's position, the Guttmacher Institute argued that many women cannot afford the most-effective contraceptive methods and that requiring contraceptive coverage would help reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions (Liptak, New York Times, 3/25).

Reproductive-rights advocates planned to gather at the Supreme Court Tuesday during the oral arguments. National Abortion Federation President and CEO Vicki Saporta said, "The stakes ... are absolutely huge." She added, "I don't think most people in this country want their employer to determine what kind of medical procedures and prescriptions they can access based on that employer's religious, political, or philosophical beliefs" (Snow Hopkins, National Journal, 3/24).

Broader Implications

Meanwhile, stakeholders on both sides have noted that the ruling's impact could extend far beyond women's rights issues. Religious objection to laws "arise in many settings," and contraceptive coverage supporters have warned that a ruling in favor of the businesses could make it more difficult to enforce laws that protect health, safety and civil rights, according to the Times.

Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, who filed an amicus brief supporting the government, said, "We would be entering a new world in which, for the first time, commercial enterprises could successfully claim religious exemptions from laws that govern everyone else," adding, "A win for Hobby Lobby could turn out to be a significant setback for gay rights."

In the government's brief, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued that a broad decision in favor of the businesses could undermine minimum wage and overtime laws, Social Security taxes and vaccination requirements, all of which have been challenged on religious grounds in the past.

However, supporters of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga say that potential implications for areas such as gay rights are overstated. They argue that the real issue at stake is protecting individuals' religious freedom (New York Times, 3/24).

Paul Clement, a former solicitor general who is arguing the case for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, said, "This isn't a case about access to contraception. It's not like the families here are taking action to prevent their employees from getting these devices if they want to do it with their own money and on their own time" (Totenberg, "Morning Edition," NPR, 3/25).

Some observers doubt that the court would issue a broad ruling, regardless of which party it sides with. Marcia Boumil, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine who has studied the case, predicted that the court would issue a ruling that will be unambiguous and "narrow, not attempting to rule -- or allow an opinion that offers interpretation -- beyond religion and birth control" (MedPage Today, 3/24).