Religious owners of closely held, profitmaking corporations are not required to provide their employees with government-mandated contraceptives that are offensive to their faith, the US Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
In a major decision upholding broad protections for religious liberty, the high court said that the government could not force the owners of a company to violate their religious beliefs to comply with the so-called contraceptive mandate in President Obama’s health-care reform law.
The 5-to-4 decision marks yet another rebuke of the Obama administration, coming days after the court unanimously struck down the president’s expansive use of his recess appointments authority and invalidated an expansive claim by the Environmental Protection Agency to alter federal law to regulate greenhouse gases.
In the contraceptive mandate case, the majority justices rejected the administration’s narrow view of religious protections. They said the contraception mandate violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
“It is [the government’s] apparent belief that no insurance-coverage mandate would violate RFRA – no matter how significantly it impinges on the religious liberties of employers,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion.
“Under [the government’s] view, RFRA would permit the government to require all employers to provide coverage for any medical procedure allowed by law in the jurisdiction in question – for instance, third-trimester abortions or assisted suicide,” Alito said.
In rejecting that position, the majority justices said that closely-held, for-profit corporations are protected by RFRA and that the contraception mandate created a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of the owners of three companies.
The three affected companies are Hobby Lobby craft stores, Conestoga Wood Specialities, and Mardel Inc., a chain Christian bookstores. The companies are run by religious families who objected to a government mandate that they provide certain kinds of contraception in their company health plans.
Under the Affordable Care Act, companies are required to provide female employees with cost-free access to 18 different forms of contraception. The owners objected to providing four of the 18 methods. They said the objectionable contraceptives interfered with implantation of a fertilized human egg in the uterus.
The owner’s religious beliefs hold that life begins at conception and that any interference with a fertilized egg is a form of killing and abortion.
The government recognized these views as a legitimate religious perspective, allowing a blanket religious exemption from the same contraceptive mandate for churches and other houses of worship. Federal officials also offered an accommodation for nonprofit religious groups.
But the Obama administration insisted that no religious exemption or accommodation would be extended to the religious owners of for-profit companies, regardless of the owners’ beliefs.
Administration lawyers argued that owners were attempting to impose their religious views on employees and depriving them of government-mandated benefits to which they were entitled.
They said it was no burden on the owners’ religion because the decision whether to use the contraceptives would be made by each employee.
The majority justices rejected that argument.
The company owners “believe that providing the coverage demanded by the [Health and Human Services] regulations is connected to the destruction of an embryo in a way that is sufficient to make it immoral for them to provide the coverage,” Alito wrote.
“This belief implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another,” he said.
“Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question, HHS and the principal dissent [by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg] in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed,” Alito said.
“In these cases,” Alito said, “[the owners] and their companies sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.”
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg expressed alarm over the “startling breadth” of the majority opinion. She said the high court had now set the stage for judges to face a growing number of cases requiring the courts to evaluate the relative merits of different religious claims.
“The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” she said.
She said she would limit such religious claims to organizations formed for a religious purpose and to carry out that purpose rather than extending protections to those engaged in exchanging goods and services to make a profit.
“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,” she said.
She noted that the decision would apply to “thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ.”
“Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent,” Ginsburg wrote.
Joining Ginsburg in dissent were Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Joining Alito in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.
In ruling for the religious owners of the businesses, the court embraced a broad reading of RFRA.
The law requires that whenever the government imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of someone’s religious faith the government must demonstrate that it is using the least restrictive means to pursue that goal.
The government failed that test, the court said, since there are many other ways to provide such coverage without offending religious beliefs.
“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections,” Alito said.
He noted that the government could also extend the accommodation it already offers to nonprofit religious groups. Under that program, the insurance provider sets up a mechanism to pay for objectionable contraceptive coverage, thus insulating the religious group from directly providing money for the contraceptives.
But Alito was also careful to note that the court was not deciding whether the administration’s accommodation for nonprofits complies with RFRA.
A number of nonprofit religious groups, including the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, have sued the government claiming the suggested accommodation does not go far enough. Those cases are working their way through the courts and are likely headed to the Supreme Court perhaps as early as next term.
Alito stressed the court’s decision on Monday related only to religious objections about the contraception mandate.
“Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs,” he said.
“Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”
Alito noted that Justice Ginsburg’s dissent raised the concern that discrimination in hiring might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction. “Our decision today provides no such shield,” he said.
The decision stems from lawsuits filed by two different religious families that own successful companies. The families asked federal judges to block enforcement of the contraceptive mandate.
The six-member Hahn family owns and operates a cabinetmaking company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, that employs 950 workers. The family seeks to run the company in fidelity to principles of their Mennonite faith.
Failure to comply with the contraceptive mandate would cost the company fines of $95,000 per day.
David and Barbara Green and their three children own and run Hobby Lobby Stores, a chain of 500 craft stores employing 13,000 workers. The family also owns and runs Mardel, Inc, a chain of 35 Christian bookstores with 400 employees.
The family seeks to run their business as an outgrowth of their Christian faith and in fidelity to biblical principles.
Failure to comply with the government’s contraceptive requirement would cost the Greens fines of $1.3 million per day.
Federal judges in both cases refused to issue the requested injunctions to block the mandate.
The Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed with the judge and ruled that the company must pay for the objectionable contraception methods in the Conestoga Wood Case.
In contrast, the Denver-based 10th Circuit overturned the judge’s decision and ruled that Hobby Lobby was entitled to an injunction preventing them from having to fund the four objectionable contraception methods.
In overturning the Third Circuit and affirming the Tenth Circuit, the majority justices said there was nothing inherent in the decision of the families to incorporate their businesses that would require them to forfeit protection of their religious liberty under RFRA.
The justices said the contraceptive mandate put the religious owners in a no-win situation.
“If the owners comply with the HHS 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, in the case of one of the companies,” Alito said.
“If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would,” he said.
The cases were Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (13-354) and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell (13-356).