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WASHINGTON – The federal government cannot require privately owned businesses to offer health insurance that includes complete contraceptive coverage if those companies legitimately believe doing so violates their religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Two years after upholding most of the Affordable Care Act, the justices, in a 5-4 ruling, said the law’s requirement that contraceptives be covered impermissibly violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, a law Congress passed to expand on the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion.

The ruling applies to Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., the companies that fought the mandate all the way to the Supreme Court, but it could prompt other court challenges from other companies whose owners object to the contraceptive mandate. It also could spark a debate on whether the government should step in and pay for contraceptive coverage for employees of such companies, which the Supreme Court said was permissible.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said: “RFRA was designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty.”

Under the law, the justices were forced to examine whether the contraceptive mandate “substantially burdens” the religious freedom of companies whose owners object to the requirement.

“We have little trouble concluding that it does,” Alito wrote.

The issue deeply divided the court, however, as the court’s four liberal justices joined a dissent authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“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,” Ginsburg wrote.

At issue in the cases before the court was the health care law’s requirement that private businesses that offer insurance must also cover contraceptives without a copayment.

Churches are exempt from that requirement, and while nonprofits affiliated with religious organizations must offer that coverage, the government has offered to pay for it.

Not all contraceptive methods were at issue in the cases the justices decided today. Instead, the companies bringing the cases only objected to coverage for intrauterine devices and the “morning-after” pill, which they regard as tantamount to abortion.

In the cases, Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based chain that its owner says was founded on Christian principles, and Conestoga, a company owned by Mennonites, argued that the mandate violates their religious beliefs.

Those companies also argued that the contraceptive coverage mandate violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, but the justices stopped short of agreeing with that argument. Instead, Alito said the requirement violates that 1993 religious freedom law.

The Obama administration supported the contraceptive mandate that was included in the Affordable Care Act, which Congress passed in 2010. At an oral argument before the high court in March, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. – arguing on behalf of the Obama administration – said the religious freedom argument doesn’t hold up because the court has to consider the rights of women who work for those companies and who want contraceptive coverage.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com.