Supreme Court Rejects Contraceptives Mandate

By: Adam Liptak (New York Times) June 2014

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. It was, the dissent said, “a decision of startling breadth.”

The 5-to-4 ruling, which applied to two companies owned by Christian families, opened the door to challenges from other corporations over laws that they claim violate their religious liberty.

The decision, along with another closely divided one that dealt a blow to public-sector unions, ended the term with a bang. But the rulings could have had an even broader immediate impact.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the court’s five more conservative justices, said a federal religious-freedom law applied to “closely held” for-profit corporations run on religious principles.

“Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs,” Justice Alito wrote.

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined on this point by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the court had for the first time extended religious-freedom protections to “the commercial, profit-making world.”

“The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”

The contraceptive coverage requirement was challenged by two corporations whose owners say they try to run their businesses on Christian principles: Hobby Lobby, a chain of crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets. The requirement has also been challenged in 50 other cases by almost 200 for-profit groups, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby.

Justice Alito said the requirement that the two companies provide contraception coverage imposed a substantial burden on their religious liberty. Hobby Lobby, he said, could face annual fines of $475 million if it failed to comply.

Justice Alito said he accepted for the sake of argument that the government had a compelling interest in making sure women have access to contraception. But he said there were ways of doing that without violating the companies’ religious rights.

The government could pay for the coverage, he said. Or it could employ the accommodation already in use for certain nonprofit religious organizations, one requiring insurance companies to provide the coverage. The majority did not go so far as to endorse the accommodation.

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