A ruling last month by the Third Circuit Court, rejecting a challenge to the new health care law’s nationwide mandate of birth control health insurance for workers, will stand. By a seven-to-five vote on Wednesday, that court refused to reconsider the case before all of the active judges. Now that there is a split on the issue in federal appeals courts, a question now arises with regard to which case will get to the Supreme Court first.
The Third Circuit’s panel ruling, and a separate decision by the en banc Tenth Circuit Court, came in cases involving profit-making business firms run by religiously devout families who oppose birth control measures as a matter of their faiths. The two appeals courts differ on a key constitutional point: can a profit-making business engage in the practice of religious beliefs? The Third Circuit said no, while the Tenth Circuit said yes.
If, as expected, the issue is taken on to the Supreme Court, it will confront the Justices for the first time with the scope of religious rights -- if any -- that a business firm may claim, seeking protection under the First Amendment.In both cases -- Hobby Lobby Inc. vs. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs. Health and Human Services -- the for-profit companies are owned by a single family that has identified religious purposes guiding their business practices. They have argued that they not just privately religious, but that the corporations they own are religious as well, and the corporations' religious rights must be protected under the First Amendment.
The Obama administration acknowledges that corporations can have religious rights. Many churches are corporations. The administration argues, however, that corporations can't be considered to have religions if they're also engaged in turning a profit. The plaintiff's in these cases, on the other hand, argue that their religion requires that they exercise their religion in their business endeavors.