WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Supreme Court will rule on Monday on whether an employer can cite religious beliefs as a reason to limit employees' access to birth control.
Saving the most sensitive issue for its last day of the current term, ahead of a three-month recess, the Supreme Court is also expected to be the site of protests from both sides of the issue as the hearing gets underway.
The decision, hotly awaited since arguments on March 25, is the first related to President Barack Obama's signature health care reform since the court upheld the law two years ago.
The controversy relates to four of the 20 contraception methods that the law requires be 100 per cent reimbursed by insurance: two types of morning-after pills and two types of intrauterine devices, or IUDs.
The plaintiffs are companies refusing to buy insurance for their employees that covers these types of birth control, saying they violate their religious convictions against abortion.
Craft store chain Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker, risk a fine if the top court rules against them for refusing to conform to the contraception requirements under the Affordable Care Act, dubbed "Obamacare."
Hobby Lobby's billionaire chief executive David Green says his company follows "biblical principles" that bar him from complying. Conestoga's owners say they run the company based on Mennonite Christian values.
But the Obama administration, which exempted traditional religious congregations from the rule, says a for-profit company such as Hobby Lobby does not enjoy the same protections afforded to individuals under the US Constitution.
Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby closes its stores Sunday for the Sabbath - rare among US businesses - and credits "God's grace and provision" on its website for its economic success.
The company does not argue against other birth control methods covered under the federal law, but says the four types at issue violate the religious principles it tries to apply on a daily basis.
A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the company, finding that the legal obligation infringed on religious freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
"Everybody agrees that churches and Catholic charities have the right" to cite the First Amendment, said constitutional lawyer Noel Francisco.
So "why one category and not the others?" he asked.
But Georgia University law professor Eric Segall argued that "if we live in a country where people can not follow the law because their conscience is offended, we're going to have a whole lot of chaos."
Ms Elizabeth Wydra, lawyer at the Constitutional Accountability Center, said she has "no doubt that the Green family as individuals might have objections."
However, "the law doesn't place any burdens on individuals, it places obligations on the corporate entities, they must provide the whole package of contraception," she added.
During the March hearing, the three progressive female justices of the Supreme Court seemed largely on the side of the Obama administration.
It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will have convinced at least two other judges to get a majority on the nine-person bench.