WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider a new challenge to President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act and decide whether employers with religious objections may refuse to provide their workers with mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives.
The cases accepted by the court offer complex questions about religious freedom and equality for female workers, along with an issue the court has not yet confronted: whether secular, for-profit corporations are excepted by the Constitution or federal statute from complying with a law because of their owners' religious beliefs.
The justices accepted two cases that produced opposite results in lower courts.
One was brought by the owners of Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain that founder and chief executive David Green said is run on biblical principles. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver said forcing the firm to comply with the contraceptive mandate would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law providing special protections for religious expression.
The second case went the other way. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia ruled that Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinet-making company owned by a Mennonite family, must comply with the contraceptive mandate. That decision noted the 10th Circuit's opinion but said that there was a "total absence of case law" to support the argument that corporations are protected by the Constitution's guarantee of free exercise of religion.
The religious freedom act prohibits the federal government from imposing a "substantial burden" on a person's exercise of religion unless there is a "compelling governmental interest" and the measure is the least-restrictive method of achieving the interest.
The high court said the cases will be consolidated for oral argument, which is likely to be in March.
In a dramatic 5 to 4 decision in June 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the basic underpinnings of the Affordable Care Act, which requires most Americans to obtain health insurance coverage or pay a penalty.