US Supreme Court read to hear challenges to contraceptive mandate? [CC]


High Court Health-Law Case To Test Religious Rights

The battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate is headed to the Supreme Court, but it’s hardly the first time the justices have asked when a law can override religious beliefs.

For many decades, the high court’s jurisprudence was clear: While the First Amendment protects religious beliefs, it provides no exemption from laws that apply generally, regardless of anyone’s sincere objections.

“To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” the court said in 1878, when it rejected a challenge to a ban on polygamy based on the Mormon faith, which then embraced the practice.

That might seem to undercut the case brought by Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. Owners of the arts-and-crafts chain say their Christian beliefs rule out certain contraceptive methods that the federal health law says employers must cover.

But the Hobby Lobby challenge rests on something beyond the First Amendment—a 1993 federal law finding that “laws ‘neutral’ toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise.”

Known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it declared that laws may “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only if so doing is the “least restrictive means” of furthering “a compelling governmental interest.” The statute authorizes challenges to any federal law unless Congress explicitly rules them out—which it did not do in adopting the Affordable Care Act.

Because Hobby Lobby is challenging a federal law, RFRA (often pronounced “riff-rah”) opens a new avenue that wasn’t available when some religious-oriented employers challenged state contraceptive mandates.

California’s 1999 Women’s Contraceptive Equity Act said only churches or closely linked auxiliaries could avoid a mandate to cover contraception. Catholic Charities of Sacramento, despite considering itself an arm of the church, didn’t qualify, the California Supreme Court held in 2004. Two years later, New York state’s highest court rejected a similar argument from Catholic Charities’ Albany branch, which sought exemption from the contraceptive mandate in the state Women’s Health and Wellness Act of 2002.

Catholic Charities failed to win exemption from those state laws, but “they didn’t have the benefit of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said Kyle Duncan, Hobby Lobby’s lawyer. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got no claim if RFRA’s not there,” but the statute is “a straighter line to getting the exemption,” he said.

Still, lower courts have split over whether RFRA applies to corporations. Before it gets a chance to argue that its religious exercise was burdened, Hobby Lobby must pass the threshold of demonstrating that, as a for-profit company, it is entitled to RFRA protection.


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