Supreme Court rules on contraceptive requirement
By David G. Savage
By David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (MCT) — The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Barack Obama's health care law Monday and ruled that Christian business owners with religious objections to certain forms of birth control may refuse to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives.
In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom, the justices decided the religious rights of these company owners trump the rights of female employees to receive the full contraceptive coverage promised by the law.
The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., is a victory for social conservatives. It also could open the door for other businesses to claim a religious exemption from laws, including anti-discrimination measures that protect gays and lesbians.
The administration's lawyers had argued that a private, for-profit corporation, such as the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores, had never before been accorded rights based on religion.
But the court determined that the Green family from Oklahoma City who founded the chain has a sincere religious belief that certain contraceptives destroy a fertilized egg and, therefore, are akin to an early abortion.
Alito said the owners of closely held corporations have religious rights under federal law.
The "Greens have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception," Alito said. "They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that ... may result in the destruction of an embryo."
By requiring them and their companies to arrange for such insurance coverage, the law's contraceptive "mandates demands that they engage in conduct that seriously violates their religious beliefs."
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined with Alito.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called it a "decision of startling breadth" in which the "court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, can opt out of any law, saving only tax laws, they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs." She said the ruling will leave thousands of women without the contraceptive coverage promised by the law. Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined her dissent.
Two years ago, the court narrowly upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional on a 5-4 vote. Monday's decision will limit one aspect of the health care law — the requirement that health plans include coverage for contraceptives. But it's one that could potentially affect large numbers of female employees.
The contraceptive requirement was challenged by a pair of family-run businesses whose owners said they believe that so-called morning-after pills and intrauterine devices can effectively abort a fertilized egg. They said the rule requiring them to pay for the coverage made them complicit in sin.
The Obama administration told the justices that contraceptives are necessary preventive care for women and that their availability would help reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
The cases are Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell.