The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the ongoing battle over the new health care law's contraceptive mandate, with the majority of the justices reportedly expressing skepticism over the White House's decision not to accommodate for-profit companies with religious qualms over the requirement.
The majority of the justices questioned, in particular, the Obama administration's contention that companies and corporations do not hold or retain religious rights in the eyes of the federal government, Politico reported.
Some justices wondered why the government wouldn't be willing to offer waivers similar to those granted to religious nonprofits -- faith-affiliated organizations that also stand firmly opposed to the contraceptive mandate.
Activists rally against Hobby Lobby's choice to deny contraceptive health care coverage to its employees outside the Supreme Court, March 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (AFP/Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski)
Politico reported that it seemed likely the court would reject the notion that businesses have absolutely no religious freedom rights.
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a craft chain based in Oklahoma, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a cabinet-making company based in Pennsylvania, are both embroiled in an ongoing legal battle with the Obama administration. They were both at the center of Tuesday's oral arguments.
The companies have claimed that the Affordable Care Act's provision requiring that they provide contraception or pay a fine violates owners' religious rights.
The health care law mandates that any contraceptive approved by the Food and Drug Administration be covered free of charge to the patient. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga object to providing Plan B emergency contraception and intrauterine devices, as they believe that they are a form of abortion, according to the Wall Street Journal.
During Tuesday's arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked what would happen if companies were permitted to refuse contraception on religious grounds, wondering whether this would lead to refusals for coverage of vaccinations or blood transfusions, the Wall Street Journal reported.
And Justice Elena Kagan said that an exemption for these companies could also create other problems, particularly when it comes to the continuation of laws opposed to sex discrimination, child labor and minimum wage, among others.
"One religious group would opt out of this and one religious group would opt out of that, and everything would be piecemeal," Kagan said. "Nothing would be uniform. Religious objectors would come out of the woodwork."
Still, a number of outlets reported that the justices seemed to sway in support of the plaintiffs.
#SCOTUS justices appear likely to rule firms have right to religious claims, but ruling on merits unclear," Reuters tweeted Tuesday afternoon, though the Associated Press reported that the court "seems divided" on the issue.
It is of course impossible to say with certainty how the nine justices will rule. Many predictions following the first oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act ended up being wildly off-base.
People who support Hobby Lobby's choice to withhold contraceptive healthcare coverage from their employees rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court March 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (AFP/Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski)
The heart of the debate in Hobby Lobby's case is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, a law that states that individual religious beliefs cannot be "substantially burdened" by the government unless there is a compelling interest on the part of the government, as CBS News reported.
But since Hobby Lobby is a corporation and not a person, there's a debate here that extends well beyond the conversation about contraception. The court is being faced with the question of whether businesses owned by individuals who hold sincere religious views should be covered under the bounds of this law.
The central question: Should these companies who object be treated as "individuals"?
A decision is expected by the summer.
Read more about the case here.