By Stephanie Haven and Michael Doyle, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court on Monday extended religious-freedom protections to certain for-profit corporations, exempting them from providing birth-control services that are required under the 2010 health care law.
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.
While 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 in a conference call 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 highly anticipated ruling marks the first time the high court has taken up the Affordable Care Act since it upheld in June 2012 the law’s important mandate that most people have health insurance.
Photo: OZinOH via Flickr