Should employers provide certain contraceptives under employee health plans, even if it is contrary to their religious beliefs? That is the essence of the arguments before US Supreme court.
The court's three liberal women justices took the lead in grilling lawyers during the 90-minute-long hearing on the hot button issue, a spinoff of President Barack Obama's signature health reform law.
AdvertisementOutside, dozens of protesters from both sides of the debate gathered on the court's steps amid falling snow as the hearing began.
The high-stakes religious freedom case was brought by craft store Hobby Lobby, whose billionaire CEO David Green says his business cannot comply with the Affordable Care Act rules brought about by Obama's sweeping health care overhaul.
Green, who describes his company as following "biblical principles," objects to requirements that it provide specific emergency contraceptives and intrauterine devices to its 28,000 employees.
But the Obama administration, which has exempted religious congregations from the contraceptive rule, says that a for-profit company such as Hobby Lobby does not enjoy the same religious protections afforded to individuals under the US Constitution's First Amendment.
Arguing the case before the justices were the same two lawyers who dueled last year over the heath reform act: Solicitor General Donald Verrilli representing the government and Paul Clement arguing for the plaintiff.
Warning of a "slippery slope," liberal justice Elena Kagan told Clement "you would see religious objectors coming out of the woodwork" if employers were allowed to refuse coverage for contraception for religious reasons.
Procedures like vaccinations or blood transfusions would be similarly targeted, not just contraceptives, she predicted.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked Verrilli "what is inconsistent" about a for-profit enterprise and religious freedom.
Outside the court, protesters' vied for attention, with the various contingents flashing various talking points.
Feminist activists chanted and waved signs that read: "Birth control, not my boss' business."
Anti-abortion proponents protested under the "my faith, my family" slogan, while gay-rights activists raised a banner that said: "Bigotry disguised as religious liberty is still bigotry."
Hobby Lobby's Christian education business Mardel is also part of the suit, which is being heard alongside another from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker whose owners say they run the company based on their Mennonite Christian values.
The three risk a fine if they do not comply with the regulations.
The plaintiffs consider four of the 20 contraceptives covered under the Affordable Care Act -- two types of morning-after pills and two types of IUDs -- to be forms abortion.
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