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Supreme Court sides with Hobby Lobby

WASHINGTON -- Hobby Lobby and other closely-held corporations can deny health insurance coverage for some contraceptives if they object to them on religious grounds, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The justices ruled 5-4 that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the Oklahoma City-based chain of crafts stores from financing coverage for contraceptive methods mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

>>Read the opinion

>>Read: U.S. Supreme Court justices hear Hobby Lobby arguments (published March 25, 2014)

However, the conservative wing of the court that gave Hobby Lobby the victory said the decision only applies to the contraceptive mandate “and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”

The majority said the government could provide coverage for the contested contraceptives just as it is doing for churches and other non-profit organizations already exempted from the mandate.The majority also tried to narrow the scope of the companies that can claim a religious exemption to a law, saying that the case did not involve publicy-traded corporations.

The decision resolved two cases that were before the court together involving businesses privately held by Christian families: Hobby Lobby and an affiliated chain of Christian bookstores, controlled by David Green and his family, of Oklahoma City; and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet maker based in Pennsylvania.

The families say four of the contraceptives can prevent a human embryo from being implanted in the womb, which they equate to abortion. They filed lawsuits against the federal government, contending the mandate forced them to violate the Christian beliefs by which they run their companies.

The Obama administration argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to individuals, not corporations, and that allowing health insurance exemptions on religious grounds could lead some companies to deny coverage of vaccinations and a range of medical procedures.

Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby, said Monday, “Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision. Today the nation’s highest court has re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles. The Court’s decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith. We are grateful to God and to those who have supported us on this difficult journey.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said, “Today, the Supreme Court ruled against American women and families, giving bosses the right to discriminate against women and deny their employees access to birth control coverage. This is a deeply disappointing and troubling ruling that will prevent some women, especially those working hourly-wage jobs and struggling to make ends meet, from getting birth control.”

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Hobby Lobby as a corporation could fight the mandate under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that the mandate posed a substantial burden on the company’s religious views.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, agrees.

“The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that 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,” the decision states.

“If the owners comply with the (Health and Human Services) 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. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a scathing dissent that said the majority opinion would have broad implications and introduce “havoc.”

Her dissent, most of which was joined by the three other liberal justices, says, “In the Court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith _ in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ.”

Though Hobby Lobby’s owners only objected to four of the 20 contraceptives mandated by the ACA, the decision issued Monday isn’t limited to those four.

Mark Rienzi, one of the lead attorneys for Hobby Lobby, said Monday that the decision would apply to closely-held Catholic-owned businesses, whose owners might object to all forms of contraception.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration strongly disagreed with the decision and said “Congress should take action to fix it.”

Democrats control the U.S. Senate and some said they would propose legislation to ensure women have access to contraceptive coverage. However, the House is controlled by Republicans, many of whom hailed the court’s decision.



Read the opinion
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Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›