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Supreme Court Says Small, Private Companies Don't Have To Provide Contraception

supreme court justices john roberts antonin scalia
supreme court justices john roberts antonin scalia

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday dealt a setback to the Affordable Care Act, ruling that employers with religious objections can refuse to pay for contraception.

In a 5-4 decision handed down by conservative justice Samuel Alito, the court sided with arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby over the federal government. The decision could lead to other challenges from for-profit corporations who seek to refuse coverage for other medical procedures at odds with religious beliefs.

Supporters of the ACA's mandate called it a big setback to the law and to women's health in general. Opponents hailed the win as a victory for religious liberty.

"Today’s Supreme Court decision makes clear that the Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was among 15 members of Congress who filed an amicus brief in the case.

"Obamacare is the single worst piece of legislation to pass in the last 50 years, and I was glad to see the Supreme Court agree that this particular Obamacare mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

The rule at stake under the health-care overhaul is a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires all new health insurance plans to pay for contraceptives. The issue is whether for-profit corporations — in this case, the lead plaintiff Hobby Lobby Inc. — can refuse to provide all or some contraceptive services on the grounds they are owned by religious families.

Both Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets, challenged that the birth-control mandate was unconstitutional because it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They said the requirement to cover contraceptives like Plan B and Ella violates their religious liberty, since they equate use of the drugs to abortion.

In the majority opinion of the court, Alito emphasized its ruling was narrow in scope:

"As this description of our reasoning shows, our holding is very specific. We do n ot hold, as the principal dissent alleges, that for-profit corporations and other commercial enterprises can 'opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.'

"Nor do we hold, as the dissent implies, that such corporations have free rein to take steps that impose 'disadvantages ... on others' or that require 'the general public [to] pick up the tab.' And we certainl y do not hold or suggest that 'RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corpo ration's religious beliefs no matter the impact that ac commodation may have on ... thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby.

"The effect of the HHS-created accommodation on the women employed by Hobby Lobby and the other companies involved in these cases would be p recisely zero. Under that accommodation, these women would still be entitled to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing."

Amid high-profile controversy two years ago, the Obama administration crafted exemptions for religious-affiliated organizations and other nonprofits. At issue was whether a for-profit corporation has religious rights under the Constitution, furthering the debate over so-called corporate personhood.

In addition to whether for-profit corporations could claim religious exemptions, the Supreme Court also wrestled with two other questions: Does the birth-control mandate of the ACA "substantially burden" the exercise of religion? And if it does, does the government have a compelling interest to do so?

Some of the liberal-leaning justices worried during oral arguments in March that a favorable ruling for Hobby Lobby could lead to more challenges of the law, including provisions that cover blood transfusions or vaccinations. The four liberal justices — Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer — dissented on Monday. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, joined Alito in the majority opinion.

This is the most significant Obamacare-related case argued before the Supreme Court since the high court upheld the law's individual insurance mandate two years ago, in the heat of the 2012 presidential election. In that decision, Roberts cast the deciding vote to preserve the heart of the law and the way for which it is paid.

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