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.
Democrats in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, were quick to jump on the opportunity to assure that FDA-approved contraceptives would be covered for anyone. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, the Senate’s fourth-ranking Democrat, said in a statement that she will “work with my colleagues and the administration to protect this access, regardless of who signs your paycheck,” according to a report at Politico. “Since the Supreme Court decided it will not protect women’s access to health care, I will,” she said.
Democratic Reps. Louise Slaughter of New York and Diana DeGette of Colorado, the co-chairwomen of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, are discussing a potential bill with Murray, Politico reported.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the decision "jeopardizes the health" of women employed by some corporations, according to USA Today. He said the White House would work with Congress on a legislative response after determining what types of corporations are covered, the types of insurance policies that might be involved, and how many employees might be implicated. "President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves," Earnest said.
In an accompanying opinion, Kennedy emphasizes that in this particular case, a mechanism for accommodating employers is "already in place" so that the majority opinion does not require the government to create "a whole new program or burden on the government.
The court noted that the Department of Health and Human Services, which mandated the contraceptive coverage under the broad category of preventive services in Obamacare, argues that for-profit companies cannot sue for relief from the mandate nor can the owners of such companies sue because the regulations apply only to the companies.
“But that would leave merchants with a difficult choice,” the majority opinion declared: “Give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations. RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice. It employed the familiar legal fiction of including corporations within RFRA’s definition of ‘persons,’ but the purpose of extending rights to corporations is to protect the rights of people associated with the corporation, including shareholders, officers and employees. Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.”
The narrow ruling makes it clear that it applies only to the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.
Today’s decision did not consider similar lawsuits from religious charities and other non-profits that have been working their way through the court system. But Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, welcomed the decision, saying "justice has prevailed."
"Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom," the archbishops said in a brief statement. “The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service, like the Little Sisters of the Poor and so many others, will prevail in their cases as well.”
John Burger is news editor of the English edition of Aleteia.