High Court Divided Over Obamacare Rule

WASHINGTON (AP) -

The Supreme Court seemed divided Tuesday over whether employers’ religious beliefs can free them from a part of the new health-care law that requires that they provide certain coverage for employees at no extra charge.

The case involves family-owned companies that provide health insurance to their employees, but object to covering certain methods that violate their religious beliefs.

The fast-paced 90-minute argument at the court focused mainly on the question of whether profit-making businesses have religious rights. The justices have never ruled that way before, but the companies in the Supreme Court case and their backers argue that a 1993 federal law on religious freedom extends to businesses as well as individuals.

The Obama administration and its supporters say a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the businesses also could undermine laws governing immunizations, Social Security taxes and minimum wages.

The outcome could turn on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote. Kennedy voiced concerns both about the rights of female employees and the business owners. Kennedy asked what rights would women have if their employers ordered them to wear burkas, a full-length robe commonly worn by conservative Islamic women.

Later in the 90-minute argument, he seemed troubled about how the logic of the government’s argument would apply to the specifics of the case.

The three women on the court, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, repeatedly questioned Paul Clement, representing the businesses, whether blood transfusions and vaccinations would be subject to the same religious objections if the court ruled for his clients.

“Everything would be piecemeal and nothing would be uniform,” Kagan said.

Clement acknowledged that courts would have to decide on a case-by-case basis, but he said only the kind of family-owned companies he represents would make such claims, not large, multinational corporations.

Chief Justice John Roberts at one point suggested that the court could limit its ruling to apply to just such companies.

The largest company among the plaintiffs is Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., an Oklahoma City-based chain of more than 600 crafts stores in 41 states with more than 15,000 full-time employees. The company is owned by the Green family, evangelical Christians.