Supreme Court Advances Cause of Religious Freedom With Ruling In Favor of Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby supporters react to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Hobby Lobby supporters react to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court advanced the cause of religious freedom Monday in the most closely watched case of its term, ruling that companies cannot be forced to offer insurance coverage for birth control methods they equate with abortion.

The 5-4 decision by the court’s conservative majority, over the vehement objections of liberal justices, dealt a blow to President Obama’s health care law two years after the court came within one vote of striking it down as unconstitutional.

It represented the second consecutive victory at the court for the religious right. Last month, the court upheld the centuries-old tradition of opening government meetings with a prayer, even when nearly all the prayers are Christian.

With its combination of controversial issues — religion, abortion, contraception, the health care law, business rights and government regulations — the case had emerged as the most controversial of the term that began in October. Groups on both sides of the debate pitting religious freedom against reproductive rights had inundated the court with briefs.

In the end, the conservatives led by Justice Samuel Alito ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 protects closely held for-profit corporations — those controlled by a limited number of shareholders — from the law’s so-called “contraception mandate” because it burdens their exercise of religion.

“A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends,” Alito said. “Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.”

But the court stopped short of a sweeping assertion that corporations can practice religion in the same way individuals can under the First Amendment. The majority limited its decision to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“If the owners comply with the … 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,” Alito said. “If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.”

The majority claimed that its decision should not deny contraceptives to women employed by the companies, because the administration already has devised a work-around for religious non-profits in which insurers, not employers, would provide the coverage. But that accommodation has been challenged by many religious non-profits as inadequate.

The court’s liberal bloc, including its three female justices, denounced the decision for denying free coverage of all birth control methods to the employees of objecting companies — in this case, the giant Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp,. a Mennonite-owned cabinet maker.

Those justices, led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, warned that if some companies can avoid covering contraceptives, others could seek religious waivers for other types of health care, such as vaccines or blood transfusions.

“Today’s potentially sweeping decision minimizes the government’s compelling interest in uniform compliance with laws governing workplaces — in particular, the Affordable Care Act,” Ginsburg said in a dissent read from the bench. “It discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt-outs impose on others — in particular, employees who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.”

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Richard Wolf

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