Supreme Court: Employers can’t be compelled to cover birth control

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 30, 2014 

  • Reaction to Supreme Court decision

    The Supreme Court ruled Monday that some companies like the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-craft stores can avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, if they have religious objections.

    A sampling of reaction:

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    “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.” – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

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    “Today’s decision is a victory for religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its big government objectives.” – House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

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    “Employers have no business intruding in the private health care decisions women make with their doctors. … If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will.” – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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    “Today’s Supreme Court decision makes clear that the Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear.” – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

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    “Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision. Today the nation’s highest court has re-affirmed the vital importance of religious liberty as one of our country’s founding principles. The Court’s decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith.” – Barbara Green, Hobby Lobby co-founder.

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    “President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them.” – White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

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    “Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious freedom by taking a stand with Hobby Lobby. Religious liberty will remain intact and all Americans can stay true to their faith without fear of big government intervention or punishment.” – Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

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    “I disagree with the reasoning as well as the conclusion. Just think about this for a minute. It’s the first time that our court has said that a closely held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom.” – Hillary Rodham Clinton, former secretary of state and potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.

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    “Simply put, the moral views of a patient’s boss should have no bearing on his or her ability to access needed medical treatments.” – Dr. Rebecca Sokol, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

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    “It conjures up fake religious freedom rights for corporations while being blind to the importance of birth control to America’s working women.” – the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

— In an ideological split that undercuts the 2010 health care law, a narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that certain business owners can reject on religious grounds the law’s mandate to provide employees with birth control coverage.

In a groundbreaking 5-4 decision, the court concluded that closely held corporations may claim religious rights similar to those enjoyed by individuals. The decision expands exemptions from the so-called contraceptive mandate imposed by the Affordable Care Act. It doesn’t affect other insurance provisions in the law, such as blood transfusions or vaccinations.

“Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them,” Justice Samuel Alito said, writing for the majority.

While the ruling struck a blow to the Affordable Care Act, it explicitly says the decision can’t be used as a “cloak” to mask “illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision one of “startling breadth” and stressed the targeted implications of the ruling on women.

“The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations’ employees and covered dependents,” Ginsburg wrote. “It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that (the health care law) would otherwise secure.”

Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma City-based chain of arts and crafts stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture maker, brought the legal challenge.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, who employ 13,000 people in more than 500 stores nationwide, claimed that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate violated their rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The latter law, created in 1993, says the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the action is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling purpose.

The court ruled that providing contraceptives without cost is not the “least restrictive” means to achieve its goal, thus violating the religious freedom law.

Employees from corporations with religious exemptions aren’t barred from seeking other insurance for contraceptives. The government, for one, could cover the free medications guaranteed under the contraceptive mandate.

“If the government wants to, on its own, go around providing people with benefits, that’s not something most of the plaintiffs object to,” Hobby Lobby lead counsel Mark Rienzi, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, said in a conference call afterward.

The response to the decision was immediate and appeared to fall largely along partisan lines. Democrats and liberal social groups criticized the decision as a step backward in protecting women’s health; Republicans and conservative social groups said it championed the protection of religious freedoms.

“The government cannot unreasonably force Americans to set aside their beliefs simply because they go into business to provide for themselves, their families and their employees,” according to a statement from Sarah Torre and Elizabeth Slattery, a religious-liberty policy analyst and legal analyst, respectively, for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center.

Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House disagreed with the ruling and would work with Congress to ensure that employees in exempt corporations “have the same coverage . . . as everyone else.”

“The ruling allows the bosses of these women to essentially step in and say,” he said, “ ‘Well, I have a religious concern, so you’re not allowed to make your own decision about whether or not you’d like to benefit from these services. We’re going to make sure that they aren’t provided.’ ”

The looming midterm elections figured in some reactions.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a stark reminder of how important it is for Democrats to keep hold of the Senate,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic female political candidates who favor abortion rights. “When the future of our judiciary branch and women’s access to health care is at stake, we need every woman to get out and vote in November.”

The highly anticipated ruling marks the first time the high court has taken up the Affordable Care Act since it upheld in June 2012 the law’s important mandate that most people have health insurance.

The health care law sets minimum standards for the insurance packages offered by businesses that employ more than 50 people. The plans must cover certain preventive exams, immunizations and screenings for diseases such as diabetes. They also must cover an array of contraceptive methods, including pills, diaphragms, intrauterine devices and emergency contraceptives.

The founders of Hobby Lobby, who are Christians, said that at least part of the contraceptive mandate violated their religious freedoms, namely the conviction that life begins at conception, when an egg is fertilized.

As a result, Hobby Lobby officials objected to providing or paying for the contraceptive drugs known as Plan B and Ella. The drugs, sometimes called the morning-after pill and the week-after pill, respectively, can prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb. Anti-abortion advocates consider the medications tantamount to abortion.

“This lawsuit has wrongfully been depicted as a conflict between religious employers and women,” said Hadley Heath Manning, the health policy director for the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative women’s policy group. “If the government wants to make birth control even more accessible, there are many other ways that it can do so without forcing employers with religious convictions to pay for abortifacients.”

Email: shaven@mcclatchydc.com, mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com

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