Pennsylvania company at center of Supreme Court case on contraceptive coverage

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WASHINGTON -- A Pennsylvania cabinetmaker is at the center of a major U.S. Supreme Court case expected to be decided in the coming days.

Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, like its much more notable companion case the more often referred to Hobby Lobby case, asks whether the Affordable Care Act compels businesses to provide free access to birth control as part of their health insurance plans -- even if doing so would violate owners' religious beliefs. Although the Hobby Lobby case has received much more publicity, the stakes are just as high for the Hahn family of Lancaster County.

The federal government, meanwhile, says a decision that rules in favor of the Hahns and Hobby Lobby could embolden other religious objectors to Affordable Care Act, allowing businesses to decide which parts of the ACA they want to follow and which parts they don't.

The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby and the Christian bookstore chain Mardel, are evangelical Christians; the Hahns are Mennonites.

The families object to providing some of the 20 forms of birth control the Affordable Care Act requires to be available for free to female employees. They include emergency contraception commonly known as morning-after pills and intrauterine devices that prevent embryos from implanting in a women's uterus.

Because their religions say life begins at conception, the Greens and Hahns argue that forcing them to cover those forms would make them complicit in abortion. They also say the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that prevents the government from substantially restricting the exercise of religion unless doing so promotes a very important public interest.

"The Mennonite Church teaches that taking a life is an intrinsic evil and sin against God for which all are held accountable," the Hahns' attorneys argue in court briefs.

Their insurance provider would not offer a plan that excluded contraceptive coverage because it did not want to be fined under the Affordable Care Act. That left the Hahns with the option of paying a penalty and dropping health coverage.

But dropping coverage was problematic for them, too, the attorneys said. First, without benefits, it would be more difficult to attract workers. Second, the Hahns believe it would be unjust to deprive their 950 existing employees of health coverage.

"The mandate imposes a very real and personal choice on the Hahns' part: to honor their religious beliefs and thereby subject them and their employees to serious harm, to comply with the mandate and violate their own duty to God or to flee the business world altogether," their attorneys wrote in briefs.

The case also asks the court to determine whether corporations can be considered "people" when it comes to the right to express religion. Attorneys for Conestoga say yes.

"There is no separating the Hahns' faith from their business or its actions. The members of the Hahn family, as Mennonite Christians, practice their faith in everything they do, including the running of their business," Conestoga attorneys argue in court briefs.

Government attorneys, meanwhile say permitting corporations to claim religious-based exemptions would create problems, because courts would then have to decide whether any given corporation is religious enough to warrant an accommodation. Second, they said the religious exemption claim would impose burdens on another group -- employees who might not share the company owners' religious beliefs.

"To maintain an organized society that guarantees religious freedom to a great variety of faiths requires that some religious practices yield to the common good," the attorneys wrote.

The Affordable Care Act could not function as intended if employers were allowed to use religious exemptions to opt out, they wrote.

"The result would be a patchwork of unpredictably incomplete coverage for employees dictated by the religious beliefs of their employers' shareholders," the attorneys wrote.

The government already has agreed to back off requirements for churches and religious non-profits to comply with the coverage mandate.

Observers say the case is significant because a ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood could open the door to all kinds of religious objectors who might argue against numerous other provisions in the Affordable Care Act, whittling away President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy.

"This could be the start of a death of a thousand paper cuts. There's absolutely a slippery slope here," said Loyola School of Law professor Jessica Levinson, who has been following the case from Los Angeles.

"What about the employer who doesn't want to provide insurance for blood transfusions because it's against their religion? What about the employer who doesn't agree with stem-cell research and there's a particular treatment that has relied on stem-cell research?" Ms. Levinson asked. "If it's not a narrow ruling, it can open the floodgates."

And that could significantly weaken the Affordable Care Act, she said.

"When you leave a law half standing, you have to say, is this law really doing anything? Even though there's been a wholesale upholding of the law, now we're getting into the nitty-gritty with these as-applied challenges," Ms. Levinson said.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of the month.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello:, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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