WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared sharply divided Tuesday over whether Hobby Lobby and other family-owned businesses should have to pay for health insurance coverage that includes contraceptive methods objectionable to the owners.
Some of the court’s conservatives said the government was effectively requiring Hobby Lobby to pay for abortions, since the company’s owners — David Green and his family, of Oklahoma City — believe that’s the effect that four of the contraceptives can have.
The three female justices, who constitute the majority of the court’s liberal wing, aggressively pushed the point that a victory for Hobby Lobby — a nationwide chain of arts-and-crafts stores — would mean for-profit companies could raise religious objections to vaccinations, blood transfusions and other medical procedures.
A majority of the nine justices appeared to accept the proposition that for-profit companies could bring a claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
That is a threshold question in the case, and the government’s attorney, Solicitor General Donald Verrelli Jr., argued that the Supreme Court has never given a for-profit company a religious exemption from a federal law.
Attorney Paul Clement, a former solicitor general who argued Tuesday for Hobby Lobby and the two other companies involved in the case, said Congress intended to protect the religious beliefs of all — including for-profit corporations — when it passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.
Oral arguments are not always a reliable barometer of how the court may ultimately rule because justices try to test the positions of both sides. However, on Tuesday, the court’s liberal and conservative wings telegraphed major differences in how they were approaching the issues, suggesting that the decision, expected before the court’s term ends in June, could come on a close vote.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often a swing vote in close cases, seemed to be weighing his options carefully. He asked some tough questions that penetrated the complex layers of legal arguments on both sides.
Kennedy asked Verrelli whether the government’s reasoning in the case meant for-profit companies could be required to pay for abortions.
Verrelli acknowledged that, by the government’s reasoning, a for-profit company wouldn’t be able to sue to vindicate religious beliefs. However, he said the Affordable Care Act didn’t require companies to pay for abortions.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. then jumped in and referred to the fact that the Greens believe that the four contraceptives at issue in the case can cause abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.
“Isn’t that what we are talking about in terms of their religious beliefs?” Roberts said. “One of the religious beliefs is that they have to pay for these four methods of contraception that they believe provide abortions.”
Hobby Lobby’s arguments
The company’s arguments include that corporations, not just individuals, are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Also, the company argues that the contraception mandate is a burden on Hobby Lobby’s free exercise of religion because it requires the closely held corporation to violate its religious beliefs by offering health insurance that covers four types of contraception that could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.