WASHINGTON - Seemingly divided, the Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with the question of whether companies have religious rights, a case challenging President Barack Obama's health overhaul and its guarantee of birth control in employees' preventive care plans.
Peppering attorneys with questions in a 90-minute argument, the justices weighed the rights of for-profit companies against the rights of female employees. The discussion ranged to abortion, too, and even whether a female worker could be forced to wear an all-covering burka.
The outcome could turn on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote, as his colleagues appeared otherwise to divide along liberal and conservative lines.
As the court heard the challenge brought by the Hobby Lobby chain of stores and others, demonstrators on both sides of the issue chanted outside in an early spring snow.
The justices upheld the overall health care law two years ago in a 5-4 ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote in favor of Obama's signature domestic legislation. The latest case focuses on a sliver of the law dealing with preventive services, including contraception, that must be offered in a company's plan at no extra charge.
The family-owned companies that are challenging the provision provide health insurance to their employees but object to covering certain methods of birth control that they say can work after conception, in violation of their religious beliefs.
The justices have never declared that for-profit corporations can hold religious beliefs. The companies in this case, and their backers, argue that a 1993 federal law on religious freedom extends to businesses.
The Obama administration says it's not just about birth control, that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the businesses also could undermine laws governing immunizations, Social Security taxes and minimum wages.