In a narrow 5-4 decision that broke down on ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled that privately owned for-profit corporations can refuse to cover their employees birth control in healthcare plans if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for the majority, arguing the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that stipulates employee-sponsored health care plans need to include contraception coverage for women violates the companies’ right to religious freedom.
“Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law,” Alito wrote, adding that by requiring religious corporations to cover contraception, “the HHS mandate demands that they engage in conduct that seriously violates their religious beliefs.”
While the Obama Administration had previously granted contraception exemptions for churches and religious organization under the ACA, the Supreme Court ruling now also protect some for-profit companies against having to provide no-cost contraception coverage to female employees.
Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned chain of hobby shops, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Store, a wood manufacturer owned by a family of Mennonites, brought the suit. The companies argued providing contraception coverage as a part of employee healthcare plans violated their religious beliefs.
Although Conservative groups are claiming the ruling strikes a blow against “overreach” by the Obama Administration, the court ruling was written so narrowly that it will only affect contraception, not other types of medical procedures that some religious groups may object to like vaccines.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed the dissenting opinion, arguing the decision was not as narrow as it seems.
“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,” Ginsburg wrote.
Justice Ginsburg argued the government had a “compelling interest” to mandate no-cost contraception coverage to women and “those interests are concrete, specific, and demonstrated by a wealth of empirical evidence,” she wrote. “To recapitulate, the mandated contraception coverage enables women to avoid the health problems unintended pregnancies may visit on them and their children.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy asserted the decision “does not have the breadth and sweep ascribed to it by the respectful and powerful dissent,” because there are already mechanisms in place to provide coverage for women who work for religious institutions.
“In these cases, it is the Court’s understanding that an accommodation may be made to the employers without imposition of a whole new program or burden on the government,” Kennedy wrote. “As the Court makes clear, this is not a case where it can be established that it is difficult to accommodate the government’s interest, and in fact the mechanism for doing so is already in place.”
The ACLU and several women’s groups have come forward criticizing the court’s decision, and Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards called it “deeply disappointing.”
“Today, the Supreme Court ruled against American women and families, giving bosses the right to discriminate against women and deny their employees access to birth control coverage,” Richards said in a statement. “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.”