WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's conservative justices sharply criticized part of President Obama's healthcare law Tuesday, suggesting they will rule later this year that requiring Christian-owned corporations to offer their employees contraceptives coverage violates the freedom of religion.
"Your reasoning would permit requiring profit-making corporations to pay for abortions," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who defended the contraceptives provision of the Affordable Care Act.
The administration's lawyer warned that the court would be adopting a "dangerous principle" if it gave employers a right to exempt themselves from federal laws based on their religious beliefs.
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. countered that Congress had passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 to require special exemptions based on religion.
The women justices — Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — spoke in support of the Obama administration's rule. They agreed with Verrilli that it would cause problems if employers were permitted to refuse to pay for benefits based on religion.
"You would see religious objectors come out of the woodwork," Kagan said.
But the five conservative justices sounded as if they stood in opposition to the contraceptives mandate.
The justices were hearing a politically charged clash over a provision under Obamacare that requires all new health insurance plans pay for contraceptives, including the "morning after" pill and intrauterine devices, or IUDs.
Catholic bishops and some evangelical Christians opposed this rule, arguing that it forces employers to be complicit in what they consider to be a sin by paying for drugs that may destroy a fertilized egg.
The administration and women's rights advocates say contraceptives are a basic health right for women, preventing both unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
The case also raises the question of whether for-profit corporations can invoke the religious beliefs of their owners in order to seek an exemption from federal law.
David and Barbara Green, founders of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores, sued and won an exemption from a lower court.
Verrilli argued that for-profit corporations do not have a right to religious liberty that trumps federal law.
But Paul Clement, the former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, defended the Greens and argued that they had followed their faith in operating the Hobby Lobby stores.