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Religious freedom

Obamacare is heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not the entire law this time, however. The nation's highest court is examining the requirement to provide birth control as part of a company's health care benefits.

While churches, religious organizations and religious educational institutions do not have to comply with this provision of the Affordable Care Act, all other entities must. Some 40 different for-profit companies are challenging the mandate, claiming it interferes with their religious freedom.

Thus far, lower courts have delivered conflicting rulings on the birth control mandate.

In one case, the majority opinion said the mandate "trammels the right of free exercise -- a right that lies at the core of our constitutional liberties -- as protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

In another case, the appellate court ruled that "for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise."

The Supreme Court justices likely will hear arguments in March and issue a decision in June.

The decision will be interesting on any number of fronts, not least of which is whether the court rules if the beliefs of a company's owner can trump those of his employees. More specifically, are the company's religious rights more important than those of a worker?

Take Hobby Lobby, which has been at the forefront of this debate and is one of the lead parties in the Supreme Court case.

The Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain refers to itself as a "biblically founded business." With more than 13,000 employees, Hobby Lobby stores can be found in 41 states.

The chain obviously is subject to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination "in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin." Which means that Hobby Lobby is free to require its employees to pass background checks and drug tests, but simply cannot make hiring decisions based on a person's religion or lack thereof. The company is not free to treat employees or applicants differently because of their beliefs, practices -- or lack thereof -- "in any aspect of employment, including recruitment, hiring, assignments, discipline, promotion, and benefits." Nor can they deny a requested reasonable accommodation of an employee's religious beliefs or, again, lack thereof.

We do not believe all 13,000 employees coincidentally all share the same religious beliefs as the owners. Even if there were one individual in Hobby Lobby's work force who chose to use a perfectly legal contraceptive device to assist in family planning -- and had no religious qualms about it, how is the company allowed to deny coverage of such a basic health care component?

We realize this case is not being brought forward by an individual being denied a legitimate benefit of employment, but the question is being raised because the company is arguing for its own religious freedom.

"Religious liberty means the right to make decisions for yourself, not other people," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, after another lower court ruling that supported Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics in their challenge of the ACA provision. "Freedom of religion should never be a blank check to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others."

We shall see if the U.S. Supreme Court believes a company with "personhood" status deserves more constitutional protection than an actual person.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net