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Court poised to decide birth-control dispute

BY MARK SHERMANAssociated Press

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court is poised to deliver its verdict in a case that weighs the religious rights of employers and the right of women to the birth control of their choice.

The court meets for a final time Monday to release decisions in its two remaining cases before the justices take off for the summer.

The cases involve birth control coverage under President Barack Obama's health law and fees paid to labor unions representing government employees by workers who object to being affiliated with a union.

Two years after Chief Justice John Roberts cast the pivotal vote that saved the health care law in the midst of Obama's campaign for re-election, the justices are considering a sliver of the law.

Employers must cover contraception for women at no extra charge among a range of preventive benefits in employee health plans.

Dozens of companies, including the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, claim religious objections to covering some or all contraceptives.

The methods and devices at issue before the Supreme Court are those that Hobby Lobby and furniture maker Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of East Earl, Pennsylvania, say can work after conception. They are the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, as well as intrauterine devices, which can cost up to $1,000.

The Obama administration says insurance coverage for birth control is important to women's health and reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, as well as abortions.

The court has never recognized a for-profit corporation's religious rights under federal law or the Constitution. But even some supporters of the administration's position said they would not be surprised if the court were to do so on Monday, perhaps limiting the right to corporations that are under tight family control.

Several justices worried at the argument in March that such a decision would lead to religious objections to covering blood transfusions or vaccinations.

Prominent Washington lawyer Paul Smith said another important question is how the decision would apply to "laws that protect people from discrimination, particularly LGBT people."

In the Hobby Lobby case, even if the court finds such a right exists, it still has to weigh whether the government's decision to have employee health plans pay for birth control is important enough to overcome the companies' religious objections. It is no surprise that this high-profile case, argued three months ago, is among the last released.

The other unresolved case has been hanging around since late January, often a sign that the outcome is especially contentious.

Home health care workers in Illinois want the court to rule that public sector unions cannot collect fees from workers who aren't union members. The idea behind compulsory fees for nonmembers is that the union negotiates the contract for all workers, so they all should share in the cost of that work.

The court has been hostile to labor unions in recent years.

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