Chicago Tribune reporter Manya Brachear Pashman on the Supreme Court's decision to consider religious objections to a provision of Obamacare. (Posted on: November 26, 2013)

At least six Illinois companies have a stake in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to consider employers' religious objections that they cover contraception in the health care benefits they provide their workers.

The high court announced it would consider the cases of Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based arts and crafts retailer with evangelical Christian owners, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Inc., a Pennsylvania cabinet company with Mennonite owners.

In Illinois, the fates of Oak Brook-based Triune Health Group; Highland-based Korte & Luitjohan Contractors; Mokena-based Ozinga Bros., a Chicago-area concrete company; Hart Electric in Lostant; the Chicago law firm of Lindsay, Rappaport & Postel; and Carol Stream-based Tyndale House Publishers now hinge on the Supreme Court.

"It seems like they represent a lot of us," said Mary Anne Yep, the Roman Catholic co-owner of Triune Health Group. "We weren't sure how it was going to happen. … We hoped it would go to the Supreme Court. All eyes are watching extremely carefully."

Eighty-four businesses, about half of them for-profit and most of them owned by Catholics, have sued President Barack Obama's administration over a health care law mandate that employers provide health benefits, including contraception and other birth control procedures.

While the Roman Catholic Church objects to all forms of contraception, many Christian business owners, including the evangelical Green family that owns Hobby Lobby, do not mind covering several types of birth control. However, covering drugs and devices that stop the release of an egg from an ovary, block fertilization or prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus would equate to abortion and violate the company's religious principles, it said.

"Both of these cases impact all the pending cases that are out there," said Edward White III, a lawyer for the American Center for Law & Justice, representing Korte & Luitjohan. "All of these people have religious opposition to the mandate. It just depends on the degree. You either have a religious right, or you don't, and it's up to the person and their religion to define what the scope of that belief is."

At issue is whether corporations should be treated the same as individuals under the First Amendment and a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows exemptions from certain rules as long as those exceptions don't harm the welfare of society.

In February, the Obama administration proposed a rule that tried to address the First Amendment concerns expressed by nonprofits. But the rule did not offer to shield for-profit businesses with more than 50 employees. Since then, lower courts have disagreed over whether for-profit corporations can be forced to comply.

In June, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, saying its religious beliefs had been compromised. In July, the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Conestoga, saying otherwise secular corporations could not engage in religious exercise. Last month, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction, barring enforcement of the mandate against Korte & Luitjohan.

Brian Leiter, founder of the University of Chicago Law School's Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values, said he believes the federal government already has gone too far to accommodate nonprofits.

"The position of Hobby Lobby is that because the owners of the business object to contraception, anyone who enters into an employment relationship with Hobby Lobby has to abide by the religion of the owners," said Leiter, author of a book titled "Why Tolerate Religion?" "That's insane in a free society. The owners of Hobby Lobby don't have to use contraception ... but they should have to comply with a law that requires insurance that provides the option ... if employees want it."

The Hobby Lobby dilemma gives the Supreme Court a second opportunity to weigh in on the health care law. Last year, justices upheld the mandate for most Americans to acquire health insurance or pay a penalty. Leiter said the Supreme Court's decision to take the case likely hinged on a combination of politics, precedent and a sincere desire to clarify the scope of religious liberty.

"It gives them another bite" at the Affordable Care Act, Leiter said. "That may be motivating some of the justices, and it does raise an important religious liberty issue."

He said the Supreme Court's 2010 decision recognizing a corporation's right to free speech invites the question of whether the First Amendment protects a corporation's religious freedom too.

"It really would be a very dramatic conclusion for the Supreme Court to say the free exercise of religion is a right possessed by for-profit corporations," Leiter said. "I'm not confident how this is going to come out. It's very hard to predict."

Oral arguments are expected to take place next March, with a decision expected in June.

Corporations and scholars aren't the only ones paying attention.

Ron Lundin, the Catholic owner of Lin-Mar Motors in Morton Grove, said his company of nearly 50 employees provides health insurance even though it's not required for a workforce that small. Still, he doesn't want to be forced to cover contraception, even if he hires enough employees to fall under the mandate.

"I'm glad they're listening," Lundin said about the Supreme Court's decision to take the case. "I hope they make the right decision, which is not to force the business to fall for that."

mbrachear@tribune.com

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