Birth control coverage up for federal appeal

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DENVER (AP) — In the most prominent challenge of its kind, Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. is asking a federal appeals court Thursday for an exemption from part of the federal health care law that requires it to offer employees health coverage that includes access to the morning-after pill.

The Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts chain argues that businesses — not just the currently exempted religious groups — should be allowed to seek exception from that part of the health law if it violates their religious beliefs.

“They ought to be able — just like a church, just like a charity — to have the right to opt out of a provision that infringes on their religious beliefs,” said Kyle Duncan, who will argue before the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Green family, the founders of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and a sister company, Christian booksellers Mardel Inc.

The Greens contend that emergency contraception is tantamount to abortion because it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

Lower courts have rejected Hobby Lobby’s claim, saying that for-profit businesses aren’t covered by an exemption added to the law for religious organizations. In a decision issued late last year, a federal judge concluded simply, “Hobby Lobby and Mardel are not religious organizations.”

But U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton in Oklahoma City also wrote that “the court is not unsympathetic” to Hobby Lobby’s dilemma.

The 10th Circuit opted to hear the case before eight active judges, not the typical three-judge panel, indicating the case’s importance.

The Hobby Lobby case has attracted broad interest from health groups and religious groups. A panel including reproductive rights organizations and the American Public Health Association banded together last year to ask the court to reject Hobby Lobby’s claim.

Susan Polan, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the Hobby Lobby case is an important test of how far businesses can go in seeking to exempt coverage of health procedures they don’t like.

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