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.
In the Charlotte area, the Catholic owner of a book publishing company that had also filed suit to block the mandate led some employees in a noon prayer of thanksgiving for the high court’s decision.
“If the government can come in and force you to go against the clearly defined teaching of your church, what else can it do?” said Robert Gallagher, owner of Good Will Publishers, which has offices in Charlotte and Gastonia. “It’s a good day for religious liberty.”
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But a top official with Planned Parenthood Health Systems of Charlotte said she was “deeply disappointed” that some employers will feel empowered to interfere with their female employees’ access to what she said should be a basic health care benefit.
“The decision to use birth control should be between a woman and her doctor, not her boss,” said Marcie Shealy, the organization’s development director.
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.”
It also seemed to leave the contraceptive mandate intact for publicly traded companies, focusing instead on the religious owners of private companies.
“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.
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, enacted 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.
Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House disagreed with the ruling and would work with Congress to ensure that employees in exempt corporations “have the same coverage as everyone else.”
Congress, business divides
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.
Also divided on the ruling: those in the business world. Steve Songer, owner of Interactive Knowledge, a Charlotte company that develops websites, questioned how far respecting business owners’ religious views could go.
“What if their religion didn’t allow them to serve Jews or gay people in their restaurant?” he said.
But Pat Baldridge, president of the Charlotte Christian Chamber of Commerce, said she and her 100-plus members “are thrilled” at the decision.
“I believe this religious freedom is exactly what the Founding Fathers orchestrated,” said Baldridge, whose group hosted a visit and speech last year from Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green.
A blow to health law
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.
The health care law sets minimum standards for the insurance packages offered by businesses that employ more than 50 people. The plans must cover certain preventive exams, immunizations and screenings for diseases such as diabetes. They also must cover an array of contraceptive methods, including pills, diaphragms, intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives.
The founders of Hobby Lobby, who are Christians, said that at least part of the contraceptive mandate violated their religious freedoms, namely the conviction that life begins at conception, when an egg is fertilized.
As a Catholic, Good Will Publishers CEO Bob Gallagher objects to all artificial birth control – just as his church teaches. His for-profit company joined a class-action lawsuit filed by the Catholics Benefits Association and was recently granted an injunction from the birth control mandate by a U.S. District Court in Oklahoma.
“We believe the Hobby Lobby decision confirms our exempt status,” Gallagher said Monday.
His company, which was founded by his grandfather and father in 1938, publishes and distributes Bibles and various Catholic books and products. It has 175 employees.
It is uncertain what, if any, effect Monday’s ruling will have on a separate lawsuit filed by Belmont Abbey College, whose president, Bill Thierfelder, lauded the high court’s decision.
In a news release, the college asserted that the Supreme Court had signaled that the birth control mandate could also fall for it and other religious nonprofits. They have rejected a proposal by the Obama administration that an insurance company, rather than the nonprofit, pay for its employees’ birth control coverage.
The looming midterm elections figured in some reactions.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who’s up for re-election, said she was “extremely disappointed. It is shameful that a woman’s access to contraception is even up for debate in the year 2014.”
Her Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, tweeted: “Today’s SCOTUS rulings were a win for our 1st Amendment freedoms, a loss for Hagan, Obama & DC bureaucrats.”
Michael Doyle of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.