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Supreme Court Says Certain Corporations Can Argue Religious Objection to Contraceptive Coverage Rules

Supreme Court Says Certain Corporations Can Argue Religious Objection to Contraceptive Coverage Rules

June 30, 2014 — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in a 5-4 decision that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees if the corporations' owners have religious objections to contraception, the Huffington Post reports.

The majority opinion, by Justice Samuel Alito, said that the Obama administration had failed to demonstrate that the federal contraceptive coverage rules are the "least restrictive means of advancing its interest" in offering women no-copay birth control coverage (Bassett/Reilly, Huffington Post, 6/30).

Alito was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented (Stohr, Bloomberg, 6/30).

Case Background

The contraceptive coverage rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require most for-profit, private businesses to offer contraceptive coverage in their employer-sponsored health plans. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and religiously affiliated not-for-profits are eligible for an accommodation that ensures they do not have to pay for or directly provide the coverage to their employees.

Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts retail chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet maker, oppose the use of certain contraceptives, arguing that they are tantamount to abortifacients, and they challenged the rules under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (PL 103-141) (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/26). Under RFRA, the federal government cannot substantially burden a person's exercise of religion unless it serves a compelling government interest and is implemented in the least restrictive way possible.

Meanwhile, the government argued that RFRA does not apply to corporations, and that the government's interest in providing no-cost contraception outweighs the corporations' potential religious rights (Bloomberg, 6/30).

Alito's Opinion

In the majority opinion, Alito said that RFRA does not allow the federal government to require companies to provide coverage for contraceptives that company owners believe are tantamount to abortion (Carlson, Modern Healthcare, 6/30).

Alito said that protecting the right of such organizations "protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies" (Bloomberg, 6/30). He said that the government could ensure women had access to contraceptives either by paying for the coverage itself or by extending to eligible for-profit companies the same accommodation it offers religiously affiliated not-for-profits (Sherman, Associated Press, 6/30).

However, Alito also restricted the decision, ruling that the exemption applies only to "closely-held organizations," which are defined by the IRS as companies in which five or fewer individuals own a majority of the company's stock (Kliff, Vox, 6/30).

In addition, Alito wrote that the decision was limited to contraceptives and "should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer's religious beliefs" (Associated Press, 6/30).

The decision does not apply to challenges filed by several not-for-profit organizations (Modern Healthcare, 6/30).

Ginsburg's Dissent

In her dissent, Ginsberg argued that the contraception coverage requirement is vital to women's health and reproductive freedom (Liptak, New York Times, 6/30).

Ginsburg also argued that Congress never intended for for-profit corporations to receive religious-based exemptions. If it had, "a clarion statement to that effect likely would have been made in the legislation," she said (Huffington Post, 6/30).

Reading aloud from the bench, Ginsburg noted that the majority opinion could be "potentially sweeping" because it minimized the government's interest in mandating uniform compliance from employers to federal laws.

She added, "And it discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt outs impose on others, in particular, employees who do not share their employer's religious beliefs" (Associated Press, 6/30).

Reaction

National Partnership for Women & Families President Debra Ness said in a statement, "Today's U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. cases are deeply troubling -- even shocking, in that the Court is allowing some bosses to deny women coverage for something as basic as birth control. Whether it affects 500 or 5,000,000 women, this is a dangerous and appalling intrusion that takes the country backward and undermines women's health." She added, "Birth control is basic, essential health care for women. It is dangerous for everyone that the Court allowed bosses control over our health care" (NPWF statement, 6/30).

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards said in a statement, "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." She added, "We urge Congress to act and protect women's access to birth control, regardless of the personal views of their employer" (PPAF statement, 6/30).

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement, "Today's decision from five male justices is a direct attack on women and our fundamental rights. This ruling goes out of its way to declare that discrimination against women isn't discrimination. Allowing bosses this much control over the health-care decisions of their employees is a slippery slope with no end. Every American could potentially be affected by this far-reaching and shocking decision that allows bosses to reach beyond the boardroom and into their employees' bedrooms" (NARAL statement, 6/30).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement, "Today's decision jeopardizes women's access to essential health care. Employers have no business intruding in the private health care decisions women make with their doctors. This ruling ignores the scientific evidence showing that the health security of millions of American women is strengthened by access to these crucial services" (Reid statement, 6/30).

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement, "Today, the Supreme Court took an outrageous step against the rights of America's women, setting a dangerous precedent that could permit for-profit corporations to pick and choose which laws to obey. This deeply misguided and destructive decision is a serious blow to Americans' ability to make their own health decisions." She added, "Allowing employers and CEOs to limit the health care available to employees is a gross violation of their workers' religious rights. It's just not her boss's business. No employer should have the right to limit the health choices of its employees, male or female" (Pelosi statement, 6/30).

Catholics for Choice President Jon O'Brien said in a statement, "Today's ruling by the Supreme Court is a devastating blow to real religious liberty in America. The claim that institutions or corporations have a conscience or religious liberty is disingenuous and offensive. Conscience and religious liberty rights belong properly to individuals" (Catholics for Choice statement, 6/30).

Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup said in a statement, "This astonishingly backward-looking decision makes one troubling pronouncement after another, turning back the clock on what should have been an historic measure of progress for women's health and empowerment. The court has given bosses the power to dictate how their employees can and cannot use their health insurance -- allowing them to intrude into their employees' private decisions based on whatever personal beliefs their employers happen to hold" (Center for Reproductive Rights statement, 6/30).

Religiously Affiliated Not-for-Profits Petition Supreme Court

In related news, several religiously affiliated not-for-profits on Friday petitioned the Supreme Court for injunctions against the federal contraceptive coverage rules as they pursue their respective lawsuits against the rules, SCOTUSblog reports.

The Catholic TV station Eternal Word Television Network filed a petition with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Denniston, SCOTUSblog, 6/28). In the petition, the organization said that it needed an injunction before it has to comply with the rules on July 1, the first day of the organization's new health insurance plan year (Haberkorn, Politico Pro, 6/27).

According to the AP/San Luis Obispo Tribune, EWTN is also asking the high court to consider the case directly instead of waiting for it to proceed through the lower courts (AP/San Luis Obispo Tribune, 6/28).The case is currently pending in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo.; the Catholic Charities of Wyoming, St. Joseph's Children's Home; St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School; and Wyoming Catholic College in a separate petition on Friday also asked for an injunction against the rules, filing the request with Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In their petition, they also said that they have moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees and that they would face substantial fines for failing to comply on July 1.

According to SCOTUSblog, it is "now nearly a certainty" that this second-round of challenges against the federal contraceptive coverage rules will reach the Supreme Court in its next term, which starts in October (SCOTUSblog, 6/28).

Poll: Majority of U.S. Residents Oppose Employer Exemptions to Rules

More than 50% of U.S. residents said that they do not think employers should be permitted to exclude certain contraceptives from their employees' health insurance plans based on their religious beliefs, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, Reuters reports.

The poll was conducted between April 28 and June 20, and it included 10,693 participants. According to the poll, 53% of U.S. residents said that they did not think employers should be able to choose what contraceptives to cover in their health plans based on their religious beliefs, while 35% said they thought employers should be able to. Twelve percent said they did not have an opinion (Biskupic, Reuters, 6/29).