(Adds comments from Obama and Boehner, paragraphs 7-9)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Nov 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreedon Tuesday to consider religious objections made by corporationsto a provision of President Barack Obama's healthcare law thatrequires employers to provide health insurance that covers birthcontrol.
Oral arguments will likely be scheduled for March, with aruling due by June, in what will be one of the most high-profileissues before the court this term.
The so-called contraception mandate of the 2010 PatientProtection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known asObamacare, requires employers to provide health insurancepolicies involving preventive services for women that includeaccess to contraception and sterilization.
The healthcare law has faced political and legal hurdlessince Obama, a Democrat, made it a signature policy on takingoffice in 2009. It came under scrutiny again this month becauseof the many problems people experienced trying to sign up forinsurance on new online exchanges.
In June 2012, the justices upheld by a 5-4 vote theconstitutionality of Obamacare's core feature that requirespeople to get health insurance.
The two cases the court agreed to hear are not a directchallenge to the contraception mandate itself. The question,which has no bearing on the broader fate of the healthcare law,is whether closely held companies owned by individuals whoobject to the provision on religious grounds can be exemptedfrom the requirement. Religious institutions are exempted fromthe regulation.
A White House spokesman said the administration's approachallowed for healthcare decisions to be made only by women andtheir doctors.
"The president believes that no one, including thegovernment or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictatethose decisions to women," the spokesman said.
Underscoring the partisan nature of the dispute, JohnBoehner, Republican speaker of the U.S. House ofRepresentatives, said in a statement the contraception mandatewas "an attack on religious freedom" and urged the court to ruleagainst the administration.
Groups representing women's rights say a ruling in favor ofthe companies would make key preventive measures that Obamacaremakes available for women for no out-of-pocket cost less widelyavailable.
"If the Supreme Court decides for bosses rather than forwomen's health, far-reaching consequences could result," saidMarcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's LawCenter. "Women could find their bosses not only interfering intheir private reproductive healthcare decisions, but other careas well."
A key question is whether corporations should be treated thesame as individuals when making free exercise-of-religion claimsunder the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a 1993federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The court had been expected to agree to hear at least one ofthe cases as both the Obama administration and companies thatchallenged the law had filed appeals after courts issueddiverging rulings.
"It's going to be a historic decision," said David Cortman,a lawyer with Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom,which represents one of the challengers. "The court willrecognize this is too great of an intrusion by the government."
One of the cases was filed by arts-and-crafts retailer HobbyLobby Stores Inc and Mardel, a chain of Christian bookstores.Both are owned and operated by David and Barbara Green and theirchildren, who are evangelical Christians. The Obamaadministration sought the high court's review after losingbefore the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June.
The other case was brought by a Mennonite family that owns acompany in Pennsylvania, Conestoga Wood Specialties. Thecompany, which lost in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals inMay, is owned and operated by Norman and Elizabeth Hahn andtheir three sons.
TWO CASES, TWO QUESTIONS
By accepting two cases that raise slightly differentquestions, the court indicated it would consider not just if corporations can sue under the 1993 law, which made it easierfor people to file suit when a government action restricts theirreligious rights, but also whether they can make constitutionalclaims under the First Amendment. The latter questionpotentially means the case could have broader impact.
The case comes before the court three years after a majorruling in which the court was seen to side with the notion ofcorporate personhood. On a 5-4 vote, the court endorsed broadFirst Amendment free-speech rights for corporations in thecampaign finance context in a case called Citizens United v.Federal Election Commission.
Legal questions surrounding U.S. Health and Human Servicesregulations issued under the preventive health provisions of theObamacare law have not previously been before the court.
The regulations in question cover various types ofcontraception previously approved by the federal government,including Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill, to whichsome Christians particularly object, viewing it as akin toabortion.
The cases are Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v.Sebelius, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-354, 13-356. (Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller,Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)
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