WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court heard Tuesday morning oral arguments for two challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that requires employers to include birth control in their employee health plans.
Activists on both sides of the issue clashed outside the courtroom in Washington. Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that business owners should not impede female workers from obtaining birth control free of charge in their health plans.
On the other side, conservative and Tea Party groups argued that businesses should be free to choose whether they want to comply with the law’s contraceptive mandate.
The case pits the government against two businesses that oppose types of birth control – such as “morning after” pills and some intrauterine devices – they consider to be forms of abortion, which is contrary to their religious beliefs. These firms face hefty fines for refusing to comply with the mandate.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration introduced new regulations that granted churches and houses of worship an exemption from providing contraceptives. Religiously affiliated organizations that fall somewhere in the middle can tell their insurance company or third-party administrator that they object on religious grounds. The insurer or administrator would then have to provide contraceptives to the employees at no cost.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined religious freedom activists who had spent the cold, snowy morning in Washington demonstrating in support of Hobby Lobby and the other plaintiffs in the case.
Cruz pointed out that the Obama administration had given exemptions to “big business” and members of Congress, but refused to do the same for people of faith.
“Those who walk the corridors of power in the Obama administration get an exemption,” he said. “And yet, the position of this administration is that people of faith do not deserve an exemption.”
He said that the case had nothing to do with the individual right to use birth control.
“No one is doubting that any person, if they choose to use contraceptives, can do so. This is not about that,” Cruz said. “This is about the federal government, whether they can force people of faith to violate their own faith by paying for something that is contrary to the dictates and teachings of their faith.”
Cruz predicted that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of religious freedom supporters.
“I predict that the United States Supreme Court is going to strike down the contraception mandate because they are going to say, ‘the federal government does not have the authority to force people to violate their faith particularly when they are granting exemptions to every other powerful interest,’” he said.
Justices’ questions during the arguments indicated a split along the court’s predictable ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy on the fence.
Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), who attended the oral arguments, was also confident the Supreme Court would rule for the challengers.
“I think our side won the case,” said Pitts, who represents one of the plaintiff’s districts, at a press conference today that included several GOP House members.
“Our side based our arguments on statute, primarily…and when you listen to the questions and answers, the court is very respectful of Congress setting policy through statute. I really feel good about what I heard this morning,” he said.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise (La.) said companies should not have to choose between violating their religious beliefs and running a business.
“Hopefully the Supreme Court joins with us in recognizing that [religious expression] is a right that can’t be trampled on by any president,” Scalise said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said millions of people have been exempted from rules under Obamacare, and argued that the plaintiffs deserve a waiver too.
“Family businesses should have freedom of expression for their religious liberty rights,” Bachmann said. “Obamacare is not fair to people all across the United States.”
Democrats criticized attempts to undermine part of the ACA, saying these efforts would turn back the clock on women’s reproductive rights.
“Unfortunately there are efforts underway all across the country, including here, today, in our nation’s capital, to severely undermine a woman’s access to some of the critical and lifesaving services provided by the [ACA],” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “Allowing a woman’s boss to call the shots about her access to birth control should be inconceivable to all Americans in this day and age, and takes us back to a place in history when women had no voice and no choice.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said allowing businesses to deny its female workers insurance coverage for contraception is discriminatory against women, especially those who lack the money to pay for contraception out of pocket.
“Decisions about a woman’s health care options should be made in a doctor’s office, not in a boardroom,” he said. “If certain contraceptive options violate a woman’s personal religious beliefs, she is free not to pursue those options, but her employer should not be allowed to make that decision for her.”