The Supreme Court is set to address whether businesses can opt out of Obamacare because of religious objections, in a new challenge that addresses the constitutionality of the president's health care law.
The case also amps up the debate of whether corporations are "people" with the same rights as citizens, an issue sparked by the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United case.
Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores with 13,000 full-time employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a small Mennonite furniture manufacturer, are suing the federal government to be exempted from an Obamacare requirement that employers cover birth control for employees.
The Affordable Care Act provides for a range of free preventive care -- including 20 forms of contraception. But the Christian families that separately own the companies say that forcing them to insure certain forms of contraception violates their First Amendment freedom of religion.
The two cases, to be argued jointly on March 25, are among the most high profile on the Supreme Court's docket this year. Each has attracted more than 80 amicus briefs, including ones from women's groups, religious organizations, lawmakers and state governments.
"There are many levels of things that are at stake," said George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu. "You [could] see quite sweeping effects on women with respect to the insurability of contraceptives, or larger effects still on workplace employer-employee relationships."
Both companies say they are amenable to providing most of the mandated forms of contraception. But they oppose emergency contraceptives like the morning-after pill, arguing that life begins at conception and that destroying an already fertilized egg in the uterus is tantamount to abortion. The Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, founded by the Green family in 1972, also opposes two intrauterine devices (IUDs) that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.
"This is an issue of life," said Hobby Lobby President Steve Green. "We cannot be a part of taking life. And so to be in a situation where our government is telling us that we have to be is incredible."
Lower courts sided with Hobby Lobby but rejected the claims of Conestoga Wood, a Pennsylvania company that employs 950 people.
The Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare's central tenets, including the birth control provisions.
If the justices side with the two companies, the ruling likely would expand on the political rights that businesses won in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In that 5-4 decision, the high court struck down most limits on corporate and union spending in elections on the grounds they violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
Since the 2010 ruling, some lower courts have applied the same reasoning in regard to religious beliefs.
The Obama administration defends its contraception requirement, saying the law puts women and families in control of their health care.
"Our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor," the White House said in a statement late last year. "The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women."
The administration added that it already has exempted churches from the contraception requirement, instead requiring insurers or another third party to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees. That arrangement, however, also has been legally challenged.
But officials with Hobby Lobby, which has 601 stores in more than 40 states, say the company -- not its female employees -- is the true victim.
"There's no way we're taking somebody's rights away," said Hobby Lobby founder and Chief Executive David Green. "It's our rights that are being infringed upon to require us to do something that's against our conscience."