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By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to consider religious objections made by corporations to a provision of President Barack Obama's healthcare law that requires employers to provide health insurance that covers birth control.
Oral arguments will likely be scheduled for March, with a ruling due by June, in what will be one of the most high-profile issues before the court this term.
The so-called contraception mandate of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, requires employers to provide health insurance policies involving preventive services for women that include access to contraception and sterilization.
The healthcare law has faced political and legal hurdles since Obama, a Democrat, made it a signature policy on taking office in 2009. It came under scrutiny again this month because of the many problems people experienced trying to sign up for insurance on new online exchanges.
In June 2012, the justices upheld by a 5-4 vote the constitutionality of Obamacare's core feature that requires people to get health insurance.
The two cases the court agreed to hear are not a direct challenge to the contraception mandate itself. The question, which has no bearing on the broader fate of the healthcare law, is whether closely held companies owned by individuals who object to the provision on religious grounds can be exempted from the requirement. Religious institutions are exempted from the regulation.
A White House spokesman said the administration's approach allowed for healthcare decisions to be made only by women and their doctors.
"The president believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women," the spokesman said.
Underscoring the partisan nature of the dispute, John Boehner, Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said in a statement the contraception mandate was "an attack on religious freedom" and urged the court to rule against the administration.
Groups representing women's rights say a ruling in favor of the companies would make key preventive measures that Obamacare makes available for women for no out-of-pocket cost less widely available.
"If the Supreme Court decides for bosses rather than for women's health, far-reaching consequences could result," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "Women could find their bosses not only interfering in their private reproductive healthcare decisions, but other care as well."
A key question is whether corporations should be treated the same as individuals when making free exercise-of-religion claims under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The court had been expected to agree to hear at least one of the cases as both the Obama administration and companies that challenged the law had filed appeals after courts issued diverging rulings.
"It's going to be a historic decision," said David Cortman, a lawyer with Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents one of the challengers. "The court will recognize this is too great of an intrusion by the government."
One of the cases was filed by arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc and Mardel, a chain of Christian bookstores. Both are owned and operated by David and Barbara Green and their children, who are evangelical Christians. The Obama administration sought the high court's review after losing before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June.
The other case was brought by a Mennonite family that owns a company in Pennsylvania, Conestoga Wood Specialties. The company, which lost in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in May, is owned and operated by Norman and Elizabeth Hahn and their three sons.
TWO CASES, TWO QUESTIONS
By accepting two cases that raise slightly different questions, the court indicated it would consider not just if corporations can sue under the 1993 law, which made it easier for people to file suit when a government action restricts their religious rights, but also whether they can make constitutional claims under the First Amendment. The latter question potentially means the case could have broader impact.
The case comes before the court three years after a major ruling in which the court was seen to side with the notion of corporate personhood. On a 5-4 vote, the court endorsed broad First Amendment free-speech rights for corporations in the campaign finance context in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Legal questions surrounding U.S. Health and Human Services regulations issued under the preventive health provisions of the Obamacare law have not previously been before the court.
The regulations in question cover various types of contraception previously approved by the federal government, including Plan B, the so-called morning-after pill, to which some Christians particularly object, viewing it as akin to abortion.
The cases are Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-354, 13-356.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)