In an ideological split that undercuts the 2010 health care law, a narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that certain business owners can reject on religious grounds the law’s mandate to provide employees with birth control coverage.
In a groundbreaking 5-4 decision, the court concluded that closely held corporations may claim religious rights similar to those enjoyed by individuals.
The decision expands exemptions from the so-called contraceptive mandate imposed by the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t affect other insurance provisions in the law, such as blood transfusions or vaccinations.
“Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them,” Justice Samuel Alito said, writing for the majority.
Although the ruling struck a blow to the Affordable Care Act, it explicitly says the decision can’t be used as a “cloak” to mask “illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision one of “startling breadth” and stressed the targeted implications of the ruling on women.
“The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents,” Ginsburg wrote. “It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that (the health care law) would otherwise secure.”
Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based chain of arts and crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture maker, brought the legal challenge.
The owners of Hobby Lobby, who employ 13,000 people in more than 500 stores nationwide, claimed that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate violated their rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The latter law, created in 1993, says the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the action is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling purpose.
The court ruled that providing contraceptives without cost is not the “least restrictive” means to achieve its goal, thus violating the religious freedom law.
Employees from corporations with religious exemptions aren’t barred from seeking other insurance for contraceptives. The government, for one, could cover the free medications guaranteed under the contraceptive mandate.
“If the government wants to, on its own, go around providing people with benefits, that’s not something most of the plaintiffs object to,” Hobby Lobby lead counsel Mark Rienzi, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, said afterward.
The response to the decision was immediate and appeared to fall largely along partisan lines. Democrats and liberal social groups criticized the decision as a step backward in protecting women’s health; Republicans and conservative social groups said it championed the protection of religious freedoms.
“The government cannot unreasonably force Americans to set aside their beliefs simply because they go into business to provide for themselves, their families and their employees,” according to a statement from Sarah Torre and Elizabeth Slattery of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.
But presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said that “the ruling allows the bosses of these women to essentially step in and say, ‘Well, I have a religious concern, so you’re not allowed to make your own decision about whether or not you’d like to benefit from these services.’”
The looming midterm elections figured in some reactions.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a stark reminder of how important it is for Democrats to keep hold of the Senate,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, which backs Democratic female political candidates who favor abortion rights.
JE Dunn Construction Co. of Kansas City had filed a brief supporting Hobby Lobby, saying Dunn’s owners believed the contraception provision of the Affordable Care Act violated their Roman Catholic faith.
“JE Dunn is pleased the court has recognized the effect of government mandates on family-owned businesses that seek to exercise religious principles,” said Tom Whittaker, chief legal officer for the firm.
Another Kansas City area firm, Sioux Chief Manufacturing in Peculiar, also had opposed the law’s inclusion of contraception in its coverage provisions.
Sioux Chief has an even stronger position than JE Dunn and does not provide insurance coverage for any contraceptives for its 450 employees. It also based its position on the owner’s Catholic beliefs and had obtained a temporary injunction to exempt it from the requirement.
On the other side, Seileach Corleigh, vice president of the Missouri chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the Supreme Court’s decision was another blow in the “war on women.”
Corleigh said Missouri NOW would continue to fight the decision. When Hobby Lobby first filed for exemption from the contraception clause, members of the organization demonstrated at local Hobby Lobby stores.
“It’s an awful thing and we regret that it happened, but we’re going to keep plugging away to push back on it,” she said. “We’re not going to forget it.”
Reaction from Kansas and Missouri members of Congress followed party lines. Kansas Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran praised the decision, as did Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. He called the ruling “an important victory to protect Americans’ fundamental right of religious freedom.”
However, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was “disappointed” and that “a decision about whether a woman should use birth control should be made by that woman and her doctor — not by her boss, and not by politicians.”
Monday’s highly anticipated ruling marked the first time the high court had taken up the Affordable Care Act since it upheld in June 2012 the law’s important mandate that most people have health insurance.
The Star’s Kevin Collison, Molly Duffy, Dave Helling contributed to this report.