| WASHINGTON, March 25
WASHINGTON, March 25 The U.S. Supreme Court
convened on Tuesday to consider whether business owners can
object on religious grounds to a provision of President Barack
Obama's healthcare law requiring employers to provide health
insurance that covers birth control.
In one of the biggest cases this year, the nine justices set
aside 90 minutes for oral argument, 30 minutes more than usual.
Underscoring the strong feelings around the issue, hundreds
of noisy demonstrators, most of them women, protested outside
the courthouse in an early spring snowstorm, many under
Supporters of the Obama administration's stance chanted,
"Ho, ho, hey, hey, birth control is here to stay," while backers
of the challengers shouted: "My faith, my family, my business."
The case pits religious rights against reproductive rights,
with a heavy dose of politics. The challengers are
arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby Stores, evangelical
Christians, and a Mennonite family that owns Conestoga Wood
Specialties of Pennsylvania.
Prominent lawyer Paul Clement was due to argue first on
behalf of the challengers to be followed after about 45 minutes
by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli for the Obama
The same lawyers faced off the last time the Affordable Care
Act, commonly called Obamacare, was before the justices in 2012.
In that case, the justices upheld by a 5-4 vote the
constitutionality of the 2010 act's core feature requiring
people to get health insurance.
The so-called "contraception mandate" of the healthcare law
requires employers to provide in their health insurance policies
preventive services for women that include access to
contraception and sterilization.
The dozens of companies involved in the litigation do not
all oppose every type of birth control. Some object only to
emergency contraceptive methods, such as the so-called
morning-after pill, which they view as akin to abortion.
The case also touches on questions of corporate rights four
years after the court, in a case called Citizens United v.
Federal Election Commission, endorsed broad free-speech rights
for companies in the campaign finance context.
The justices will weigh whether the challengers have a claim
under a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom
A ruling is expected by the end of June.
The cases are Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v.
Sebelius, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-354, 13-356.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Howard Goller
and Grant McCool)