The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that bosses of privately run companies may object on religious grounds to a provision of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law that would have compelled them to provide birth control free of charge as part of coverage plans.
The court held on a 5-4 vote — split along ideological lines — that closely held companies could seek an exemption from the mandatory coverage of contraception under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The decision means some employees may have to obtain certain forms of birth control, such as the morning-after pill, from other sources.
The Obama administration responded by saying the ruling “jeopardizes the health of women.”
“The owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
He added that the administration aimed to work with Congress “to make sure that any woman affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else.”
In a majority opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the court said the ruling applies only to the birth control mandate and does not mean companies would necessarily succeed if they made similar claims to other insurance requirements, such as vaccinations and drug transfusions.
Alito indicated that employees could still be able to obtain the birth control coverage via an accommodation to the mandate that the Obama administration has already introduced for religious-affiliated nonprofits.
The accommodation allows health insurance companies to provide the coverage without the employer being involved in the process. Eligible nonprofits must provide a self-certification, described by a lower court judge as a “permission slip” authorizing insurance companies to provide the coverage.
The accommodation is itself the subject of a separate legal challenge.
But in Monday’s decision, the Supreme Court justices ruled for the first time that for-profit companies may make claims under a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In a dissent read aloud from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision “potentially sweeping” because it minimizes the government's interest in uniform compliance with laws affecting the workplace. “And it discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt-outs impose on others, in particular, employees who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs,” Ginsburg said.
The decision will affect similar cases brought by employers around the country. There are 49 cases in total, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Religious institutions are already exempt from the requirement.
Not all the company owners involved in litigation across the country oppose every type of birth control. Some, including Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, object only to emergency contraceptive methods, such as the morning-after pill.
Reaction to the verdict was swift from both sides.
Women’s health care provider Planned Parenthood reacted to the ruling on Twitter, stating, “Make no mistake: Today, once again, the Supreme Court ruled against American women.”
The American Humanist Association, a group advocating for the equality of the nonreligious, likewise slammed the decision. It described the decision as “religious intrusion,” adding that the court “has placed the religious views of corporate shareholders over the legitimate health concerns of employees.”
The politically conservative Independent Women’s Forum applauded the decision, saying the ruling was a “victory for anyone who believes in limited government and freedom of conscience rights or religious liberty.”
Most working women will probably see no effect from the ruling, corporate health benefits consultants expect. Publicly traded companies are unlikely to drag religion into their employee benefit plans, said Mark Holloway, director of compliance services at the Lockton Companies, an insurance broker that serves medium-size and growing employers.
“Most employers view health insurance as a tool to attract and retain employees,” said Holloway. “Women employees want access to contraceptive coverage, and most employers don’t have a problem providing that coverage. It is typically not a high-cost item.”
It is unclear how many women will be affected by the ruling. Hobby Lobby is by far the largest employer of any company that has gone to court to fight the birth control provision in the ACA.
The Oklahoma City–based company has more than 15,000 full-time employees in more than 600 stores in 41 states.
Al Jazeera and wire services