Protesters outside U.S. Supreme Court

Protesters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments on contraception coverage are being heard. (Jean Marbella, Baltimore Sun / March 25, 2014)

A springtime snowfall dampening their signs, if not their spirits, several hundred activists divided into opposing groups Tuesday on the plaza in front of the Supreme Court to make their own opening arguments over the Affordable Care Act.

The point of contention: the law's requirement that privately owned businesses provide employees with health insurance that covers contraception.

Supporters offered up call-and-response volleys of, "Pro-birth control, pro-family." Opponents countered with the chant, "Pro-faith, pro-freedom, pro-life."

Margaret Keeler juggled an umbrella in one hand and a sign reading "Stand up for religious freedom" in the other.

"I'm opposed to the mandate on the grounds that it's a violation of our fundamental religious liberty rights," the Rockville woman said.

But the Rev. Harry Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, defined that freedom in a different way.

"Religious liberty is not about bosses being able to impose their religious beliefs on all of their employees," the Silver Spring man said. "It's about their employees being able to practice their own religious liberty in the privacy of their own homes."

Inside, lawyers made their cases to a Supreme Court that appeared to be similarly divided.

Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of craft stores founded and owned by a conservative Christian family, has sued the government over the requirement.

The count granted the sides 90 minutes for their arguments, 30 more than usual. The liberal-leaning justices and government lawyers said that allowing Hobby Lobby to skirt the mandate could lead others to demand a range of similar exemptions. Conservative justices said a ruling could be limited to only certain kinds of businesses.

While the mandate addresses only birth control, anti-abortion groups said they opposed it because they say some contraceptives, such as the morning-after pill, are abortifacients.

Outside, each of the two groups kept largely to its own side of the pavement. Both faced the same wet and unseasonable snowfall. Bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," politicians made appearances, some rallygoers knelt to pray and a volunteer circulated with a large garbage bag to collect "melted signs" that were too wet to wave any longer.

A group of mandate supporters from the Baltimore area eventually made it after their bus broke down en route.

"It's all right," said Planned Parenthood organizer Margo Murphy, whose bus ferried 31 people to the rally. "We're having a great time."

Jonathan Darnel was part of a group that displayed large photographs of bloody fetuses and said the birth control mandate violates his belief that life begins at conception. The Baltimore County man is with the Center for Bioethical Reform, a group that says it seeks justice for the unborn and other vulnerable groups.

"I can't comprehend why anyone or any business should be obligated to fund anything that they consider death," Darnel said. "The law forces you to kill."

Hobby Lobby co-founder Barbara Green said in a statement after the oral arguments that the company was "built on our faith … and we want to continue to live out our faith in the way we do business."

The company, which started in Oklahoma City in 1970, has more than 600 stores across the country, including locations in Columbia and Laurel. Its lawyers say the company has no problem with providing most contraceptives, but objects to the drugs and devices that it contends end human life after conception.

The Supreme Court is also hearing a challenge to the mandate filed by Conestoga Wood, a cabinetmaking company owned by a Mennonite family in Pennsylvania.

The companies are represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that champions conservative causes.