WASHINGTON — Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby won a major victory from the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday against the Obama administration’s birth control mandate, leaving the White House and congressional Democrats vowing to fill new gaps in health insurance coverage for some women.
In the most closely watched case of the high court’s term, the justices ruled 5-4 that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows Hobby Lobby and other closely held corporations to refuse coverage for contraceptives if they object to them on religious grounds.
Hobby Lobby’s victory came from the court’s conservative wing, which said the decision only applies to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act and didn’t mean all insurance mandates —including those for vaccinations or blood transfusions — could be avoided because of religious objections. Employers also couldn’t hide behind the ruling to discriminate illegally, the court said.
More on the Hobby Lobby case:
The decision resolved two cases that were before the court together involving businesses privately held by Christian families: Hobby Lobby and an affiliated chain of Christian bookstores, controlled by David Green and his family, of Oklahoma City; and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet maker based in Pennsylvania.
The families say four of the contraceptives — including the so-called “morning after” pill and IUDs — can prevent a human embryo from being implanted in the womb, which they equate to abortion. They filed lawsuits against the federal government, contending the mandate forced them to violate the Christian beliefs by which they run their companies.
The Obama administration argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to individuals, not corporations, and that allowing health insurance exemptions on religious grounds could lead some companies to deny coverage of vaccinations and a range of medical procedures.
Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby, said Monday, “Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision. Today the nation’s highest court has reaffirmed 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.”
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the court “ruled against American women and families, giving bosses the right to discriminate against women and deny their employees access to birth control coverage. This is a deeply disappointing and troubling ruling that will prevent some women, especially those working hourly wage jobs and struggling to make ends meet, from getting birth control.”
Though Hobby Lobby’s owners only objected to four of the contraceptives mandated by the health care law, the decision issued Monday isn’t limited to those four.
Mark Rienzi, one of the lead attorneys for Hobby Lobby, said Monday that the decision would apply to closely held Catholic-owned businesses, whose owners might object to all forms of contraception.
The high court decision on Monday noted that the federal government carved out exceptions to the contraceptive mandate for churches and other religious organizations and requires insurance companies to pay for that coverage. The government could deal in the same way now with those who might lose some coverage from for-profit companies with religious objections, the opinion states.
Some of the dozens of other challenges to the contraceptive mandate moving through the federal court system now involve that mechanism for nonprofits like charities and schools to opt out of the coverage, meaning the high court has more work to do on this issue.
Political realm next?
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the ruling “jeopardizes the health of women employed by these companies.”
“As millions of women know firsthand, contraception is often vital to their health and wellbeing. ... We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else,” Earnest said.
Democrats control the U.S. Senate, and some said Monday they would propose legislation to ensure all women have access to contraceptive coverage.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said, “Your health care decisions are not your boss’s business — period. Since the Supreme Court decided it will not protect women’s access to health care, I will. In the coming days, I will work with my colleagues and the administration to protect this access, regardless of who signs your paycheck.”
However, the House is controlled by Republicans, many of whom hailed the court’s decision.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, “The president’s health care law remains an unworkable mess and a drag on our economy. We must repeal it and enact better solutions that start with lowering Americans’ health care costs.”
Appeals court upheld
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Hobby Lobby as a corporation could fight the mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that the mandate posed a substantial burden on the company's religious views.
The Supreme Court's majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, agrees.
“The plain terms of (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) 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,” the decision states.
“If the owners comply with the (Health and Human Services) 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.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing dissent that said the majority opinion would have broad implications and introduce “havoc.”
Her dissent, most of which was joined by the three other liberal justices, says, “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.”