The decision, which applies only to a small number of family or
other closely-held companies, means an estimated several thousand
women whose health insurance comes via such companies may have to
obtain certain forms of birth control coverage elsewhere.
In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the justices said the
companies can seek an exemption from the so-called birth control
mandate of the law known as Obamacare. The companies in the case
said they did not object to all birth control but certain methods
they said were tantamount to abortion, which they oppose for
In their last decision of the nine-month term, the justices ruled
for the first time that for-profit companies can make claims under a
1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that
was enacted to protect religious liberty.
In the majority opinion, conservative Justice Samuel Alito said it
was difficult to distinguish between closely held corporations and
the people who own them. The religious liberty law was not intended
to discriminate "against men and women who wish to run their
businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by
their religious beliefs," he wrote.
In reaching its conclusion, the court touched on questions of
corporate rights four years after the justices, in a case called
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, endorsed broad
free-speech rights for companies in the campaign finance context.
One of the two cases was brought by arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby
Lobby Stores Ltd, which is owned and operated by David and Barbara
Green and their children, who are evangelical Christians. The other
case was brought by Norman and Elizabeth Hahn, Mennonites who own
Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp in Pennsylvania. None of the
companies that have objected are publicly traded. Hobby Lobby has
around 13,000 full-time employees while Conestoga Wood has 950.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the court's decision
"jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top
Republican in Congress, called the ruling "a victory for religious
freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly
crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its Big Government
objectives." U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said his fellow
Democrats "will continue to fight to preserve women’s access to
contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room."
WOMEN'S RIGHTS ASSERTED
Women's rights groups said the ruling gave employers too much of a
say over private decisions.
"Bosses should stick to what they know best - the board room and the
bottom line - and stay out of the bedroom and doctors' offices,"
said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law
Hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of one of the most
contentious cases of the Supreme Court term converged on the
courthouse, wearing costumes, chanting and carrying signs. Some
demonstrators chanted, "Keep your boardroom out of my bedroom" and
"Separate church and state, women must decide their fate."
Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund for
Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby, said outside the
building that the justices had "recognized that American families do
not lose their fundamental rights when they own a family business."
Alito wrote that the ruling applied only to the birth control
mandate and did not mean companies would necessarily succeed if they
made similar claims to other insurance requirements, such as
vaccinations and blood transfusions.
Alito indicated that employees could still be able to obtain birth
control coverage via an expansion of an accommodation to the mandate
that the Obama administration has already introduced for
religious-affiliated nonprofits. The accommodation allows health
insurance companies to provide the coverage without the employer
being involved in the process.
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Under the accommodation, eligible non-profits must provide a "self
certification", described by one lower court judge as a "permission
slip" authorizing insurance companies to provide the coverage. The
accommodation, as it applies to religiously-affiliated nonprofit
groups, is the subject of a separate legal challenge that is
currently being litigated in lower courts. The government’s
accommodation is “less restrictive than requiring employers to fund
contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs," Alito
In her dissent Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the liberal
wing of the court, cautioned that the decision opened the door to
companies opting out of laws.
"In a decision of startling breadth, the court holds that commercial
enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and
sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law ... they judge
incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs," she
The case was the second time that the 2010 Affordable Care Act,
which extended healthcare insurance coverage to millions, had been
before the court. In a landmark 2012 case, the justices upheld by a
5-4 vote the constitutionality of Obamacare's core feature that
requires people to get health insurance.
The case has no bearing on the broader fate of the healthcare law
and does not affect the vast majority of what the government
estimates to be 29.7 million women who currently receive birth
control coverage as a result of the law.
The decision will affect similar cases brought by employers around
the country. There are 49 cases in total, according to the Becket
Fund. Religious institutions are already exempt from the
requirement. There are fewer than 20,000 employees in total,
including men and women, who work for companies that object to the
mandate, according to the Reproductive Research Audit, a group that
backs the objecting companies. The group concluded that of that
20,000, around 5,600 are likely to be women of child-bearing age.
Some of the company owners involved in litigation around the
country, including Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, object to
contraceptive methods such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd's
Plan B morning-after pill, and ella, made by the Watson Pharma unit
of Actavis PLC.
Drug industry analysts said they expected the ruling’s impact on
birth control manufacturers would be minimal. Shares in Teva and
Actavis were little changed on Monday.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll before the ruling found a majority of
Americans oppose letting employers, based on their religious views,
exclude certain contraceptives from workers’ insurance coverage.
The poll of 10,693 people asked whether employers should be able to
choose what forms of contraceptives their health plans provide based
on their religious beliefs. Of those responding, 53 percent
disagreed and 35 percent agreed. Of those surveyed, 12 percent said
they did not know.
The cases are Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Burwell,
U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-354, 13-356.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, David Morgan and Will Dunham)
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