Greg Stohr
Bloomberg News

The U.S. Supreme Court will take up a challenge to part of President Barack Obama’s health-care law by companies claiming a religious exemption to the requirement that they provide birth-control coverage for employees.

The justices Tuesday agreed to hear two cases involving family-run businesses that say they regard some forms of contraception as immoral. The companies include the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., whose owners, led by David Green, say they run the business in accordance with the Bible.

The clash will be the court’s first look at the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act since a majority upheld the core of the law in 2012. The court will rule by July.

“Few issues are more important than the extent to which the government must recognize and accommodate the religious exercise of those it regulates,” Hobby Lobby argued. The second case involves Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a woodworking business owned by a Mennonite family.

Both sides urged the justices to resolve the religious-rights question. The issue has divided lower courts and sparked dozens of lawsuits by for-profit companies.

“We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health, and we are confident the Supreme Court will agree,” Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.

The court will consider whether the Constitution and a 1993 federal law give companies the same religious-freedom rights as people.

The birth-control rule stems from the health-care law’s requirement that employers provide insurance coverage meeting minimum standards. Hobby Lobby says it could be fined as much as $475 million a year for noncompliance. Conestoga, which has fewer employees, says it faces annual fines of $35 million.

“The administration’s mandate is an attack on religious freedom,” said U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from West Chester.

The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act says the U.S. government may “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only in rare cases. Congress enacted the law to nullify a 1990 high court decision which cut back protection for religious practices.

The Obama administration says that before 1990, the high court treated the Constitution’s free-exercise clause as covering only individuals and nonprofit religious groups.

And Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, which advocates for abortion rights, said, “Bosses have no business imposing their own politics on their employee’s health and decisions.”

Anti-abortion groups are backing the companies. “Punishing Americans for their moral objection to life-ending drugs and devices is abhorrently un-American,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.