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Justices To Rule In Hobby Lobby Contraception Case


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea sitting in for Rachel Martin. Tomorrow is the last day of the current Supreme Court session. And the legal community is awaiting decisions in two big cases still pending before the high court.

One involves Obamacare and its requirement that health care plans include coverage for contraceptives, and the other speaks to labor organizing in the public sector. Joining us to set the stage on these potentially landmark cases is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

GONYEA: So people who watch the court and people who care a lot about the fate of Obamacare have been on tenterhooks all year about one case in particular. It's Sebelius versus Hobby Lobby Stores. Tell us what it's all about.

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, Obamacare requires that employers cover their employees with a basic, preventive healthcare package. And that includes contraception. Hobby Lobby objects on religious grounds, and Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation.

The Affordable Care Act has exemptions for nonprofit, religious organizations and churches, etcetera. But it has no exemption for for-profit corporations. And Hobby Lobby says it has 16,000 employees, 500 craft stores. But it says it's offensive to its religious beliefs to include certain contraceptive practices in its coverage plan.

GONYEA: So we've got one side that says it's about fairness for women and coverage of contraceptives. From the other side's point of view it's a defense of religious freedom. Is the court likely to really take on the conflict between those two big causes?

TOTENBERG: I don't see an easy way out. And in some ways, that's the problem for the court. Where do you draw the line? What about if you have religious objections to transfusions? What about if you have religious objections to child labor laws or civil rights laws? The status quo is that the Supreme Court has never found that a for-profit company gets to exempt itself from laws that apply to everyone.

GONYEA: The arguments weren't all that long ago - March 25th, several of the justices asked the lawyers some questions, as they will, of course. Do we get any indication of the courts thinking from those exchanges back in March?

TOTENBERG: You know, if you were a betting person, based on the arguments, you would have to say that Hobby Lobby had a decent chance of prevailing in this case. But we've all learned, from some rather famous cases lately, don't put too many eggs in that basket.

What was really interesting about the argument is all the women on this court were ferocious in their pretty clear view that you couldn't just exempt people, on religious grounds, from complying with contraception coverage. And they said, look, if you don't want to comply, then pay the fine.

GONYEA: OK, Nina, in the time we have left, tell us about what's at stake in the other big decision that we're still waiting for, Harris versus Quinn.

TOTENBERG: You know, this is one of those cases that could be a thunderbolt or a complete fizzle. Who knows? The court has, for over half a century, said, you don't have to join a union. But you do have to pay the union dues that cover the negotiating of the contract and in the administering of the contract because otherwise, you're a free rider on those members who are paying the dues. You're getting the benefits without paying for them.

And this is a case that presents the question anew. And there are some conservative members of the Supreme Court who seem to want to revisit that principle of law. And if they do, it could drive a stake through the heart of the union movement in America.

GONYEA: OK. Tomorrow's a big day. Thanks, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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