Judges across the country are increasingly split over whether private employers and their companies can cite their religious beliefs as a valid reason for denying birth control coverage to their employees.

Earlier this month the Obama administration proposed a compromise for some nonprofit religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and colleges, that would allow them to avoid paying directly for such insurance. But the administration refused to consider a similar exemption for private, for-profit employers.

The growing legal dispute over paying for birth control is the latest in a long-running battle over how to weigh claims of religious liberty, one that has sometimes flipped the usual conservative-liberal divide.

Lawyers for the Obama administration rely heavily on an opinion by conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia that rejected the notion that the Constitution's protection for the "free exercise of religion" gives believers an exemption from some laws.

"The free exercise of religion means, first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires," Scalia wrote in a 1990 case in which two Native Americans claimed a right to use peyote in a religious ceremony. It is not, he said, "a private right to ignore generally applicable laws."

"Any society would be courting anarchy," Scalia continued, if people were free to ignore a "valid and neutral law … on the ground that [it] prescribes conduct that his religion proscribes."