WASHINGTON — In a narrowly tailored 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court June 30 said closely held companies may be exempted from a government requirement to include contraceptives in employee health insurance coverage under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The court said that Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the two family-run companies that objected to the government mandate that employees be covered for a range of contraceptives, including drugs considered to be abortifacients, are protected from the requirement of the Affordable Care Act. The opinion essentially held that for-profit companies may hold protected religious views.
But the court also said that government requirements do not necessarily lose if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs.
The ruling is not a slam-dunk for all entities that oppose the contraceptive mandate for religious reasons. The court noted that cases challenging the mandate for nonprofit entities, such as Catholic colleges and faith-based employers, are pending and that the June 30 ruling doesn't consider them. The decision also did not delve into whether the private employers have religiously motivated protection from laws under the First Amendment.
It said the government failed to satisfy the requirement of RFRA, a 1993 law, that the least-restrictive means of accomplishing a government goal be followed to avoid imposing a restriction on religious expression.
The majority opinion said the ruling applies only to the contraceptive mandate and should not be interpreted to hold that all insurance coverage mandates — such as for blood transfusions or vaccinations — necessarily fail if they conflict with an employers' religious beliefs.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the primary holding, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate concurring opinion, which agreed with the ruling, but made clear that while the opinion applies to the particular companies involved in this case, it's not a sweeping condemnation of the key elements of the contraceptive mandate itself.
"It is important to confirm that a premise of the court's opinion is its assumption that the HHS regulation here furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of female employees," wrote Kennedy in his concurrence. He went on to say that the federal government failed to use the least restrictive means of meeting that interest, pointing out that it has granted exemptions from the mandate for employees of nonprofit religious organizations.
"That accommodation equally furthers the government interest, but does not impinge on the plaintiff's religious beliefs," he wrote.
In the 49-page majority opinion, Alito noted that the department of Health and Human Services that administers the ACA has already provided exemptions from some of the coverage requirements for employers in a variety of situations, including some that were grandfathered in without certain provisions and employers of fewer than 50 workers.
He also said that the standard for the government of meeting a general good by the least restrictive means is "exceptionally demanding," and that the contraceptives provision fails to meet it. The federal government could easily, and relatively inexpensively, cover the cost of providing the disputed contraceptives coverage, Alito said.
And he said the federal government already has a system for handling the mandate for nonprofit religious organizations with objections to the mandate.
U.S. bishops laud court's
ruling, but fight continues
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's June 30 ruling that certain businesses, based on their religious objections, can be exempted from a government requirement to include contraceptives in their employee health insurance coverage means "justice has prevailed," said two U.S. archbishops.
"We welcome the Supreme Court's decision to recognize that Americans can continue to follow their faith when they run a family business," said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
Although Catholic leaders and other religious groups hailed the decision as a victory for religious freedom, they also said the issue is not resolved since the government mandate requires nonprofit organizations such as Catholic charities, hospitals and schools to provide contraceptive coverage.
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the religious liberty law firm that represented Hobby Lobby, the family-owned Oklahoma-based retailer, before the Supreme Court, told reporters after the ruling that the court's decision bodes well for similar pending cases of nonprofit organizations.
He noted that the opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito includes a footnote reference to the Little Sisters of the Poor's lawsuit, which he said indicates that the "government accommodation is not here for long."
The Little Sisters of the Poor religious order has asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to extend an injunction blocking enforcement of the federal mandate.
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