Supreme Court rules for Conestoga
5-4 decision supports owners’ religious opposition to ACA contraception mandate
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a Mennonite-owned cabinet-making business in Pennsylvania cannot be compelled by the Affordable Care Act to provide certain contraceptives in employee health care plans.
The court announced the 5-4 decision June 30, stating some corporations can hold religious objections to some federal laws. The decision, the justices made clear, applies to privately held companies — not vast publicly held corporations, for which the owners’ religious beliefs would be difficult to discern.
The ruling applies only to contraceptives and not procedures such as blood transfusions or vaccinations. Analysts weighed in immediately, noting that by restricting the decision to contraceptives, the court opens the door to challenges from other corporations to other laws that violate the owners’ religious beliefs.
The case was brought by two companies: Hobby Lobby, a chain of 500 stores with more than 13,000 employees owned by the Green family, who are evangelical Christians; and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Lancaster County, Pa.-based company with 950 employees owned by the Hahn family, members of Weaverland Mennonite Conference, an Old Order group.
The business owners sought a religious exemption from the ACA’s requirement that large employers provide insurance that covers a full range of contraceptives, including four that the owners believe can cause abortion. Government lawyers insisted for-profit corporations are not entitled to exercise religious rights.
Combining questions of religious rights, corporate rights, the ACA and abortion, the case was, for many people, the most important the Supreme Court decided this year.
Connecting the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to a corporation and not an individual for the first time, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the contraception mandate “clearly imposes a substantial burden” on the owners’ beliefs because the government could provide the coverage in other ways.
“If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions,” he wrote. “And if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price — as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies. If these consequences do not amount to a substantial burden, it is hard to see what would.”
All of the court’s female members were in the minority. The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, said the decision “is bound to have untoward effects.”
“Our cosmopolitan nation is made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference,” she said from the bench. “In passing RFRA, Congress did not alter a tradition in which one person’s right to free exercise of her religion must be kept in harmony with the rights of her fellow citizens, and with the common good.”
The Associated Press reported the Obama administration must now find a new way of providing free contraception to women covered by such companies’ insurance plans.
Alito suggested the government could simply pay for pregnancy prevention or offer the accommodation it has made to religious nonprofit organizations, in which the insurer or a third party pays for the birth control.
The New York Times reported that an estimated one-third of Americans are not subject to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate.
Religious groups are exempted, small employees don’t have to offer any health coverage, and some insurance plans that didn’t offer the coverage were grandfathered in.
Contributing: Religion News Service.
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