WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that some companies cannot be forced to offer birth control-related insurance to their female employees. The ruling in the controversial case was based primarily on a law that guarantees religions freedom.
Questions surfaced about whether that freedom existed for corporations and not just individuals.
But with 5-4 decision,some tightly held corporations can opt out of contraceptive coverage if it’s incongruent with the owners’ religious beliefs.
The ruling comes two years after the Supreme Court upheld the validity of President Barack Obama’s signature health-care plan,the Affordable Care Act,which,among other things,requires employers with health plans to provide women with access to contraceptives.
The court determined that forcing companies to provide contraception that is against the company’s religion is a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993,or RFRA.
The law says the government may not “substantially” burden someone’s exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling government interest.” In addition,the government must use the least-restrictive method of enforcing that interest.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.,writing for the majority,said the government did not meet any of the three tests.
Alito said the ruling deals only with contraceptives,adding that there are alternative methods of paying for birth control. He said companies could not use the decision to refuse to cover vaccinations,blood transfusions and other health care.
Alito was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia,Clarence Thomas,Anthony M. Kennedy and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissent,joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor,Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. Breyer and Kagen agreed with most Ginsburg’s dissent,but could not decide whether for-profit corporations or their owners can bring RFRA claims,and did not join that part of the dissent.
Ginsburg,who read part of her dissent aloud,argued that religious organizations exist “to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith,” which cannot be equated to for-profit corporations.
She said the “potentially sweeping” decision “minimizes the government’s compelling interest in uniform compliance with laws governing workplaces.”
Hobby Lobby was founded and is run by David and Barbara Green,devout Christians who own and operate the Oklahoma City-based company with their three children. The arts-and-crafts store opened 45 years ago and now has 500 stores and 13,000 employees.
Matt Green,one of David and Barbara’s sons,in 1981 started Mardel,a chain of 35 Christian bookstores with about 400 employees.
Their story is nearly identical to that of Norman and Elizabeth Hahn,who founded Conestoga Wood Specialties. The Hahns and their three sons are all devout members of the Mennonite Church,a Christian denomination that opposes abortion.
Both families believe that life begins at conception,so providing access to somc contraceptive would violate their beliefs.
The Hahns argued that they should be able to run their business “in accordance with their religious beliefs and moral principles,” because it has been under their control since they started the company 50 years ago. The company has 950 employees.
The ACA rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services provided access to all 20 Food and Drug Administration-approved methods of birth control,but the Hahns and Greens objected to four specific contraceptive methods – two are “morning-after” pills,Plan B and Ella,and the other two are intrauterine devices,or IUDs,which can cost nearly $1,000.
Before the ruling,companies would have faced severe consequences for refusing to provide contraceptive coverage. Hobby Lobby could have been charged $475 million per year; Conestoga,about $33 million per year; and Mardel,about $15 million per year.
The court ruled for Hobby Lobby in part because of how devoted the owners are to their religion. Each family member has signed a pledge to run the businesses in accordance with the family’s religious beliefs. The stores are also closed on Sundays,and the owners often buy newspaper ads to promote religion.
In a statement,Barbara Green,co-founder of Hobby Lobby,she said that she and her family are “overjoyed” by the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Today the nation’s highest court has re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles,” she said. “The Court’s decision is a victory,not just for our family business,but for all who seek to live out their faith,” she said.
Reach reporter Xander Zellner [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.