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Supreme Court will take up controversial Obamacare provision on contraception

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • High court accepts appeal on Obamacare's contraception coverage
  • Supreme Court more likely to take up appeal as lower courts split
  • Blockbuster 2012 ruling by justices involved Obamacare individual mandate
  • This case centers around employer mandate and coverage of contraceptives

By Bill Mears

CNN Supreme Court Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The high-stakes fight over implementing parts of the troubled healthcare reform law will move to the U.S. Supreme Court in coming months, in a dispute involving coverage for contraceptives and "religious liberty."

The justices agreed on Tuesday to review provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers of a certain size to offer insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.

At issue is whether private companies and non-profits can refuse on the claim it violates their religious beliefs.

Oral arguments will likely be held in March with a ruling by late June.

Nearly 100 pending lawsuits have been filed in federal court challenging the birth control coverage benefits in the "Obamacare" law championed by President Barack Obama.

The high court two years ago narrowly upheld the key funding provision of the health care law, ruling most Americans would be required to purchase insurance or pay a financial penalty-- the so-called "individual mandate."

The constitutional debate now shifts to the separate employer mandates and whether corporations and religious institutions themselves enjoy the same First Amendment rights as individuals.

Three federal appeals courts around the country have struck down the contraception coverage rule, while two other appeals courts have upheld it. That "circuit split" made a Supreme Court review more likely.

Among the plaintiffs is Hobby Lobby, Inc. a nationwide chain of about 500 for-profit arts and crafts stores.

David Green and his family are the owners, and say their Christian beliefs clash with parts of the law's mandates for comprehensive coverage.

They say some of the drugs that would be provided prevent human embryos from being implanted in a woman's womb, which the Greens equate to abortion.

The privately held company does not object to funding other forms of contraception -- such as condoms and diaphragms -- for their roughly 13,000 employees, which Hobby Lobby says represent a variety of faiths.

Companies that refuse to provide the coverage could be fined up to $1.3 million daily.

The Obama administration has been defending the law and federal officials say they have already created rules exempting certain nonprofits and religiously affiliated organizations from the contraceptives requirements. In those cases, women would receive coverage from another company at no cost.

The law's supporters say the law does not require individual company owners to personally provide coverage they might object, but instead places that responsibility on the corporate entity.

A key issue for the justices will be interpreting the 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Can companies, churches, and universities be included, or do the protections apply only to "persons?"

Technical issues with the Obamacare government website's rollout in recent weeks have led to complaints and criticism over the law's implementation.

The pending cases are Liberty University v. Lew (13-306); Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (13-354); Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius (13-356); and Autocam Corp. v. Sebelius (13-482).

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