The court will consider two cases. One involves Hobby Lobby Inc., an Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts chain with 13,000 full-time employees. Hobby Lobby won in the lower courts.
The other case is an appeal from Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a Pennsylvania company that employs 950 people in making wood cabinets. Lower courts rejected the company's claims.
The court said the cases will be combined for arguments, probably in late March. A decision should come by late June.
The cases center on the provision of the law that requires most employers that offer health insurance to their workers to provide the range of preventive health benefits. In both instances, the Christian families that own the companies say that insuring some forms of contraception violates their religious beliefs.
The key issue is whether profit-making corporations may assert religious beliefs under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the First Amendment provision guaranteeing Americans the right to believe and worship as they choose.
Nearly four years ago, the justices expanded the concept of corporate "personhood," saying in the Citizens United case that corporations have the right to participate in the political process the same way that individuals do. Some lower court judges have applied the same logic in the context of religious beliefs.
"The government has no business forcing citizens to choose between making a living and living free," said David Cortman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian public interest law firm that is representing Conestoga Wood at the Supreme Court.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the health care law "puts women and families in control of their health care by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth control, free of charge." Carney said the administration already has exempted churches from the requirement, and has created a buffer between faith-affiliated charities and contraceptive coverage by requiring insurers or another third party to provide contraceptive coverage instead of the religious employer. Separate lawsuits are challenging that arrangement.
The issue is largely confined to religious institutions and family-controlled businesses with a small number of shareholders. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 85 percent of large American employers already had offered coverage before the health care law required it.
Hobby Lobby calls itself a "biblically founded business" and is closed on Sundays. Founded in 1972, the company now operates more than 500 stores in 41 states. The Green family, Hobby Lobby's owners, also owns the Mardel Christian bookstore chain.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said corporations can be protected by the 1993 law in the same manner as individuals, and "that the contraceptive-coverage requirement substantially burdens Hobby Lobby and Mardel's rights under" the law.
In its Supreme Court brief, the administration said the appeals court ruling was wrong and, if allowed to stand, would make the law "a sword used to deny employees of for-profit commercial enterprises the benefits and protections of generally applicable laws."
Conestoga Wood is owned by a Mennonite family who "object as a matter of conscience to facilitating contraception that may prevent the implantation of a human embryo in the womb."
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the company on its claims under the 1993 law and the Constitution, saying "for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise."
The Supreme Court will have to confront several questions: Can these businesses hold religious beliefs; does the health care provision significantly infringe on those beliefs and, even if the answer to the first two questions is "yes," does the government still have a sufficient interest in guaranteeing women who work for the companies access to contraception?