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For-profit corporations owned by a few people and not publicly traded cannot be required to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a 5-4 decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby, the court found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores that employs some 15,000 people nationwide.
Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family, who are evangelical Christians. They were joined by Conestoga Wood Specialties, owned by the Hahns, a Mennonite family. The Greens also own Mardel, a Christian book seller. All three businesses sued the Department of Health and Human Services over having to provide their employees with coverage of four contratceptives that also can induce abortions.
“Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision," said co-founder Barbara Green in a statement. "Today the nation’s highest court has re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles. The Court’s decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith. We are grateful to God and to those who have supported us on this difficult journey.”
The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, acknowledged that the owners of these business have "sincere Christian beliefs that life begins at conception and that it would violate their religion to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs and devices that operate after that point."
“The Court assumes that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods is a compelling governmental interest, but the Government has failed to show that the contraceptive mandate is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest,” the opinion read, adding that the mandate substantially burdens the exercise of religion. “It requires the Hahns and Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby, $33 million a year for Conestoga, and $15 million per year for Mardel. And if they drop coverage altogether, they could face penalties of roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.”
Alito was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Sonia M. Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer. It is the first time that the court has ruled that for-profit businesses can hold religious views under federal law, AP points out. And it means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under objecting companies’ health insurance plans, the wire service said.
In fact, Alito suggested two ways the administration could ensure women get the contraception they want. It could simply pay for pregnancy prevention, he said. Or it could provide the same kind of accommodation it has made available to religious-oriented, not-for-profit corporations. When such groups inform the government that providing the coverage violates their religious beliefs, the groups’ insurers or a third-party administrator takes on the responsibility of paying for contraceptives.