The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, ruling that closely held companies can claim a religious exemption from the requirement that they offer birth-control coverage in their worker health plans.
Voting 5-4, the justices today ruled for family-run businesses, including the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., that say they regard some forms of contraception as immoral.
The ruling carves a hole in Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishment, the 2010 healthcare law that the Supreme Court upheld two years ago. More broadly, the decision marks an expansion of corporate rights, saying for-profit companies, like people, can claim religious freedoms under federal law.
Safeguarding the religious rights of corporations “protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.
The case divided the court along ideological lines. Alito’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.
Ginsburg said the ruling may foster employer objections to other types of healthcare coverage, including blood transfusions and vaccines, or even let companies try to opt out of gender-discrimination laws.
“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” Ginsburg wrote.
The decision was the last of the court’s nine-month term, coming as sign-carrying advocates on both sides of the issue demonstrated in front of the marble building.
The birth-control rule stems from the health-care law’s requirement that any insurance coverage offered by employers meet minimum standards.
The case centered on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the U.S. government may “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only when it meets a demanding test.
“Today’s decision is a landmark decision for religious freedom,” said Lori Windham, an attorney for Hobby Lobby. “The Supreme Court recognizes American families don’t lose their religious rights” when they run a business.
The Obama administration argued that the law doesn’t cover corporations and that the government’s interests outweighed any religious rights the corporations possess.
The administration says contraceptive coverage is crucial to women’s health and economic well-being, arguing that almost half of all pregnancies are unintended. Women of childbearing age spend 68 percent more than men in out-of-pocket health-care costs, the government contends.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said the court displayed “a shocking disregard for women’s health and lives.” She added, “Every woman has the right to make her own reproductive health decisions.”
Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement called the decision “deeply troubling” and said, “For the first time, the highest court in the country has said that business owners can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit that they are guaranteed by law.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called the decision “a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines.”
The cases are Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, 13-354, and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, 13-356.