The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of religious business owners seeking an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage rule on religious grounds, holding that closely held corporations cannot be forced to comply with the mandate.
The case is a major win for religious employers and a loss for the Obama administration.
The court divided five to four along ideological lines with conservative Justice Samuel Alito writing the opinion of the court.
The blockbuster case pitted the Obama administration against the religious Greens, a Southern Baptist family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft stores chain, and the Mennonite Hahn family, which owns the Conestoga Wood Specialties cabinet-making business in Pennsylvania. The two families argued that Obamacare’s requirement that their insurance plans cover a full suite of birth control options, some of which they object to on religious grounds, violated their religious liberty.
The case revolved around whether for-profit businesses could seek exemptions from federal laws under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Once the court decided this, it had to decide whether the contraception rule was really a burden to the religious freedom of the two families. Lastly, the court had to decide whether the government had a compelling enough interest in mandating coverage that its interest trumps the employers’ religious rights.
Hobby Lobby also concerned the ongoing debate over the “corporate personhood,” with the court giving businesses a religious exemptions from neutral federal laws for the first time Monday.
After oral arguments in March, Justice Anthony Kennedy appeared to be the swing vote. The government had stressed the rights of employees to the full suite of medical care they are entitled to under law. Many observers, however, thought Kennedy might side with Hobby Lobby and Conestoga after the question of whether the government could mandate abortion coverage came up.
More than contraception coverage was at stake in the case. During oral arguments, the liberal justices question whether exemptions for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would lead to a situation in which businesses could win religious exemptions from myriad federal laws, from contraception coverage to coverage for other medical procedures to labor or minimum wage laws.
In his opinion, Alito tried to narrow the fallout from the ruling by saying it applied to the contraception mandate but not other medical procedures like blood transfusions or to other federal labor laws.
In her dissent, liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the majority opinion a "decision of startling breadth."