WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that closely held, for-profit businesses do not have to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives that violate their religious beliefs. The decision — in cases involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties — applied to the so-called contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Samuel A. Alito and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined most of Ginsburg’s dissent, though not the section that addressed whether for-profit companies could bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The court’s holding states:
“This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g. for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”
Here are excerpts from the opinions:
“In holding that the (Health and Human Services contraceptive) mandate is unlawful, we reject HHS’s argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.
“Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.”
“There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives.
“In fact, HHS has already devised and implemented a system that seeks to respect the religious liberty of religious non-profit corporations while ensuring that the employees of these entities have precisely the same access to all FDA-approved contraceptives as employees of companies whose owners have no religious objections to providing such coverage ... Although HHS has made this system available to religious non-profits that have religious objections to the contraceptive mandate, HHS has provided no reason why the same system cannot be made available when the owners of for-profit corporations have similar religious objections.
“We therefore conclude that this system constitutes an alternative that achieves all of the Government’s aims while providing greater respect for religious liberty. And under RFRA, that conclusion means that enforcement of the HHS contraceptive mandate against the objecting parties in these cases is unlawful.”
“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 (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
“In the Court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith — in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ. Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent.”
“The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents. It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that the ACA would otherwise secure.”
“The Court’s determination that RFRA extends to for-profit corporations is bound to have untoward effects. Although the Court attempts to cabin its language to closely held corporations, its logic extends to corporations of any size, public or private. Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood — combined with its other errors in construing RFRA — invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.”
Chris Casteel, Washington Bureau