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Supreme Court Hobby Lobby Ruling: Beyond Birth Control

July 3, 2014

On Monday, June 30th, a divided Supreme Court ruled that closely-held, for-profit corporations are not legally obligated to provide contraception coverage to their female employees.  Initially, the case began when Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned craft supply chain, and Conestoga Wood, a Pennsylvania-based and Mennonite family-owned wood manufacturer, decided to challenge the contraception mandate included in the Affordable Care Act. 

They argued that complying with the mandate, which requires companies to provide birth control to female employees at no cost, violates their religious freedom by forcing them to pay for contraception methods that they are morally opposed to.  They argue that certain forms of birth control, such as intrauterine devices and emergency “morning after” pills, too closely resemble abortion because they could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting.

Prior to the ruling, the Obama administration had already granted an exception for churches and had made accommodations for religious hospitals, schools, and non-profits.  For-profit corporations were still required to either comply with the coverage rule or pay a fine.  Now, the Supreme Court’s decision expands the contraception mandate exception to encompass for-profit corporations that are religiously held.  However, this exception applies to birth control only and does not give religious employers the ability to refuse to cover other medical services that they might object to, such as vaccines or blood transfusions.

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Samuel Alito, who stated that within the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration failed to demonstrate that the mandate was the “least restrictive means of advancing its interest.”  However, many believe that this ruling opens the door to a wide range of issues in the future on the grounds that a for-profit company can obtain a religious exemption, essentially allowing the employer to pick and choose which portions of the law to follow.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed the dissenting opinion, asserting that the decision is less narrow and more far-reaching than the majority suggests: “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.”

The ruling may blur the lines of religious freedom rather than clarify them.  Some are concerned about the ruling’s enhancement of “corporate personhood,” as it recognizes that a company itself can have a religious identity, which in turn affects its employees.  Further, the decision may complicate many citizens’ decisions about their healthcare coverage.  While it has always been typical for people to rely on their employers for healthcare plans, as companies acquire an increased say over the coverage they offer, Americans may look elsewhere, on their own.  Thus, the Hobby Lobby case may give rise to subsequent decisions on religious freedom, civil rights, corporation status, and healthcare in the not-so-distant future.