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Supreme Court To Take Up Controversial Birth Control Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it will take up the question of whether a for-profit company can refuse to cover contraception for its employees because of religious objections.

Dozens of companies have sued the Obama administration over a rule in the Affordable Care Act requiring most employers -- with the exception of churches and religious non-profits -- to cover the full range of contraceptives in their health insurance plans. The Supreme Court will hear the most high-profile case, filed by the Christian-owned craft supply chain Hobby Lobby, as well as Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, a case filed by a Pennsylvania-based furniture company owned by a family of Mennonites. The cases will be heard together, likely in March 2014, with a decision expected in June.

Hobby Lobby's attorneys argue that the provision forces it to pay for four methods of contraception to which the owners morally object: the Plan B morning-after pill, an emergency contraceptive called Ella, and two different kinds of intrauterine devices (IUDs) that may sometimes work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting into the uterus. Those who believe that life begins at fertilization consider those forms of birth control to be akin to abortion.

"As the federal government embarks on an unprecedented foray into health care replete with multiple overlapping mandates, few issues are more important than the extent to which the government must recognize and accommodate the religious exercise of those it regulates," Hobby Lobby's attorneys wrote to the Supreme Court in October.

While U.S. Appeals Courts have been split on whether to exempt for-profit companies from the contraception rule, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Hobby Lobby, concluding that "that the contraceptive-coverage requirement substantially burdens Hobby Lobby" and that the store should not be subject to fines for failing to comply.

The Department of Justice and numerous women's health advocacy organizations argue that emergency contraception is not abortion, that 99 percent of sexually active women use birth control in this country for both medical and family planning reasons, and that employers should not be able to cherry-pick which health benefits to cover for women.

"Should the court decide that this service is something bosses can decide for their employees, what else can bosses decide?" said Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center. "Can they decide they don't want to cover vaccines or HIV medications? Can they say, 'I don't believe in these kinds of wage and hour rules?' To say, 'Yes, a corporation can impose its religion on employees' -- that can have very far-reaching implications."

UPDATE: The White House has released a statement in response to the news:

The health care law puts women and families in control of their health care by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth control, free of charge. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration asked the Supreme Court to consider a legal challenge to the health care law’s requirement that for-profit corporations include birth control coverage in insurance available to their employees. We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health and are confident the Supreme Court will agree.

We do not comment on specifics of a case pending before the Court. As a general matter, our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor. The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women. The Administration has already acted to ensure no church or similar religious institution will be forced to provide contraception coverage and has made a commonsense accommodation for non-profit religious organizations that object to contraception on religious grounds. These steps protect both women’s health and religious beliefs, and seek to ensure that women and families--not their bosses or corporate CEOs--can make personal health decisions based on their needs and their budgets.

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