The Supreme Court ruled Monday that corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.
The decision, which was decided 5-4, means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under objecting companies’ health insurance plans.
Contraception is among a range of preventive services that must be provided at no extra charge under the health care law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010 and the Supreme Court upheld two years later.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion. The court’s four liberal justices dissented.
The court stressed that its ruling applies only to corporations that are under the control of just a few people in which there is no essential difference between the business and its owners.
Alito also said the decision is limited to contraceptives under the health care law. “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,” Alito said.
The administration said a victory for the companies would prevent women who work for them from making decisions about birth control based on what’s best for their health, not whether they can afford it. The government’s supporters pointed to research showing that nearly one-third of women would change their contraceptive if cost were not an issue; a very effective means of birth control, the intrauterine device, can cost up to $1,000.
The contraceptives at issue before the court were the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, and two IUDs.
Officials and advocates falling on the side of Hobby Lobby’s argument praised the Court’s ruling on religious liberty grounds.
“This decision protects the religious freedom that is guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment, and we’re grateful the Court ruled on the side of liberty,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “The central issue of this case was whether the federal government can coerce Americans to violate their deeply held religious beliefs, and thankfully the Court has upheld the proper limits on the government’s power.”
“This ruling is a victory for anyone who believes in limited government and freedom of conscience rights or religious liberty,” Hadley Heath Manning, Director of Health Policy for the Independent Women’s Forum, said. “This lawsuit has wrongfully been depicted as a conflict between religious employers and women, but the real question before the Court was whether there are limits to what government can compel from its citizens and if we are still a country that believes in freedom of conscience.”
Nearly 50 businesses have sued over covering contraceptives. Some, like those involved in the Supreme Court case, are willing to cover most methods of contraception, as long as they can exclude drugs or devices that the government says may work after an egg has been fertilized. Other companies object to paying for any form of birth control.
There are separate lawsuits challenging the contraception provision from religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges and charities.
It is unclear how many women potentially are affected by the high court ruling. The Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores is by far the largest employer of any company that has gone to court to fight the birth control provision.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
This story has been updated.