WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to jump into a growing legal dispute between the Obama administration and businesses run by conservative Christians over whether a company must pay for birth control drugs that conflict with its owner’s religious beliefs.
The decision to hear the cases, which could affect millions of women with employer-provided health plans, means that for a second time, the justices will decide the fate of a key part of President Obama’s healthcare law.
Last year, the court in a 5-4 decision upheld the requirement that individuals obtain basic health insurance or pay a tax penalty. The new cases test whether employers who offer insurance can be required to pay for the full range of approved contraceptives even if they have moral objections to some of them.
The cases also raise the issue of whether a corporation, rather than just individuals, can raise claims regarding religious freedom. In 2010, in the campaign spending case known as Citizens United, the justices ruled that corporations have rights to speech protected by the 1st Amendment, but they have never said whether corporations can claim a religious belief.
The family that challenged the law argues that what’s really at stake is its personal beliefs. “Business owners should not have to choose between violating their faith and violating the law,” said David Green, founder of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a nationwide chain of more than 500 arts and crafts stores with 13,000 full-time employees.
He and his family object to the requirement that they pay for workers’ health plans that cover emergency contraception, including the “morning after” pill, and IUDs. Those methods of contraception, by preventing a fertilized egg from developing, amount to abortions, they say.
The family won a ruling from a federal appeals court exempting the company from this part of the law on the grounds that it infringed on its right to religious freedom.
The Obama administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that a for-profit corporation has never been accorded personal religious rights. Doing so, administration lawyers said, could open the door to allowing companies to limit many legal rights of workers.
The justices said Tuesday that they would hear the Hobby Lobby case and a similar challenge brought by a Mennonite-run woodworking business in Pennsylvania.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration was confident that the court would uphold the law, saying it “seeks to ensure that women and families — not their bosses or corporate CEOs — can make personal health decisions based on their needs and their budgets.”
Leading women’s rights advocates have called the birth control benefit crucial to workplace freedom for women.
“Bosses have no business meddling in their employee’s deeply personal healthcare decisions,” said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.
But defenders of religious rights said these family-run businesses were acting based on their “owner’s deep religious commitments,” said Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett.
“They are not trying to limit what employees or customers do or believe. They are instead seeking protection against an imposition by the government.”
The Affordable Care Act said most employers must provide basic health insurance that covers “preventive services” at no cost to workers. That includes cancer screening and other tests. The administration issued a rule saying that the requirement also covers the “full range” of approved contraceptive methods.
The “direct medical cost of unintended pregnancy was estimated to be nearly $5 billion in 2002,” Obama’s lawyers told the court.
When Catholic bishops complained about the so-called contraceptive mandate, the White House agreed to exempt religious employers such as churches. It also said nonprofit, religiously affiliated schools, colleges and hospitals could avoid paying directly for such benefits. Their insurers were told to cover the cost.
Exempting private, for-profit corporations would go too far, the administration has said. Dozens of private employers have sued, and lower courts have split on the issues involved.
There is also the issue of whether federal law or the Constitution require that the government give some people a special exemption to some laws because of their religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court rejected that view in a 1990 opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia. While the 1st Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, he said, it does not give believers a right to ignore laws that apply to everyone.
In response, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which tipped the balance in favor of religious claims. It said the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” except to further a compelling interest.
Judges have looked to the 1993 law to decide the cases involving the contraceptives. But the Mennonite family also contended its constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion were at issue.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said that if corporations had free-speech rights in politics, they also had rights to religious freedom. The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago adopted the same view this month.
But the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia took the opposite view in ruling against Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., the company run by a Mennonite family.
“A for-profit secular corporation cannot engage in the exercise of religion,” the judges in that case said.
The court said it would hear both cases in March, meaning they would probably rule in late spring.
The cases are Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties vs. Sebelius. If the court rules for the family-run businesses, its opinion is expected to make it clear that the administration may not enforce the contraceptive mandate against other owners with similar objections.