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WASHINGTON – Supreme Court justices are weighing whether corporations have religious rights that exempt them from part of the new health care law that requires coverage of birth control for employees at no extra charge.
The case being argued at the Supreme Court on Tuesday involves family-owned companies that provide health insurance to their employees, but object to covering certain methods of birth control that they say can work after conception, in violation of their religious beliefs.
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.
Protesters on both sides gathered outside the court Tuesday as light snow fell on Washington. "Back off, boss," went one refrain from administration backers. The companies' supporters chanted, "My faith, my business."
The justices have never before held that profit-making businesses have religious rights. 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.
Under the new health care law, health plans must offer a range of preventive services at no extra charge, including all forms of birth control for women that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Some of the nearly 50 businesses that have sued over covering contraceptives object to paying for all forms of birth control. But the companies involved in the high court case are willing to cover most methods of contraception, as long as they can exclude drugs or devices that the government says may work after an egg has been fertilized.
The largest company among them 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 who say they run their business on biblical principles. The Greens also own the Mardel chain of Christian bookstores.
The other company is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of East Earl, Pa. The business is owned by the Hahns, a family of Mennonite Christians, and employs 950 people in making wood cabinets.
Members of the Green and Hahn families are expected to be in the courtroom. People have been in line since the weekend for a chance to see the argument, among the term's biggest.
The 90-minute argument, extended from the usual one hour, features the same lawyers who argued opposite sides of the court's epic consideration of the health care law in 2012 and the federal gay marriage law case last year. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. is the Obama administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, while Paul Clement, who held the same job under President George W. Bush, is representing the businesses.
At about the same time and only a few blocks away, federal appeals court judges' are hearing a separate lawsuit challenging an Internal Revenue Service rule giving tax credits to residents of states that have declined to establish their own health insurance exchanges.
Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shermancourt