Should a corporation be allowed to cite freedom of religion as grounds to duck its obligation under the Affordable Care Act to provide its workers with health insurance that includes birth control?
A ruling late last month by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will likely lob that very question up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which previously rubber-stamped the bulk of Obamacare in a highly charged decision last summer.
Birth control a covered benefit
President Barack Obama's signature health care reform law requires companies with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance, including birth control, to their workforce or face fines of up to $3,000 per employee. The provision, which was to take effect in 2014, has been extended to 2015.
Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., an East Earl, Pa., cabinet maker owned by Mennonite Christians and having 950 employees, challenged the law, claiming that the contraception requirement violated its rights under the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that represents plaintiffs opposed to the contraception mandate, estimates there are 63 similar challenges currently working their way through the U.S. court system.
Court rules against employer
In a 2-1 decision, the 3rd Circuit Court ruled against the cabinet maker, stating that "for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise."
Circuit Judge Robert Cowen elaborated, noting that while rulings such as Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission protect a corporation's freedom of speech, there's scant precedent to protect a corporation's freedom of religion.
"We simply cannot understand how a for-profit, secular corporation -- apart from its owners -- can exercise religion," he wrote for the majority. "A holding to the contrary … would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners."
Next stop, Supreme Court?
The decision directly contradicts a June 27 ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that granted an injunction to the arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, stating that for-profit companies can claim freedom of religion in some cases.
Such split decisions by lower courts typically improve the odds that the nation's highest court will weigh in on the issue.
What's your take? Should corporations be excused on religious grounds from the requirement that they provide health insurance that includes birth control?
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Jay MacDonald is a Bankrate contributing editor and co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book by Bankrate editors and reporters.