The Supreme Court Sides with Hobby Lobby on Contraceptive Mandate Challenge

In a 5-4 decision penned by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court ruled that "closely held" corporations can't be required to provide contraceptive coverage, thanks to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

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Update: In a 5-4 decision penned by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court ruled that "closely held" corporations can't be required to provide contraceptive coverage, thanks to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In his decision, Alito wrote that the government failed to demonstrate in court that the contraceptive mandate as it stands is the "least restrictive means" of providing birth control at no extra cost. "There are other ways in which Congress or HHS could equally ensure that every woman has cost-free access to the particular contraceptives at issue here and, indeed, to all FDA-approved contraceptives," Alito wrote. The opinion then brings up the contraceptive mandate "compromise" currently available to religious non-profits who object to the law as an example:

Although HHS has made this system available to religious nonprofits that have religious objections to the contraceptive mandate, HHS has provided no reason why the same system cannot be made available when the owners of for-profit corporations have similar religious objections. We therefore conclude that this system constitutes an alternative that achieves all of the Government’s aims while providing greater respect for religious liberty. And under RFRA, that conclusion means that enforcement of the HHS contraceptive mandate against the objecting parties in these cases is unlawful. 

The decision leaves unanswered the question of whether publicly-held corporations are also considered "people" under the RFRA, instead limiting its reach to "closely-held," private companies, and to objections to the contraceptive mandate. It doesn't apply to religious employers who would like to challenge coverage for, say, blood transfusions on religious grounds. "Nor does it 
provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination
as a religious practice," Alito added.

Justice Kennedy, believed to be the "swing vote" on this case after oral arguments, filed a separate concurring opinion for the majority in which he suggests that the government could pay for the coverage Hobby Lobby refuses to provide to its employees, as SCOTUSblog reported. In addition to Kennedy's concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a 35-page dissent in the case. She read from her dissent on the bench on Monday. Justices Breyer and Kagan filed a separate dissenting opinion.

The full opinion is here.

Original Post: Later this morning, the Supreme Court will issue its final opinions of the term, including a widely-anticipated ruling on the Hobby Lobby challenge to the contraceptive mandate. The case asked the high court to answer two questions: do corporations have the right to religious exercise under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and if so, is the contraceptive mandate a violation of that right? The court will decide the Hobby Lobby case along with a second, similar, challenge to the mandate from Conestoga Wood Specialties.

What's this all about?

Both companies believe they are entitled to refuse to provide health insurance to female employees that includes coverage of several contraceptives at no additional cost. Although scientific consensus disagrees, Hobby Lobby believes that four covered forms of contraception — two brands of emergency contraception and two kinds of IUDs — are abortifacients, or abortion-inducing birth control methods. The company objects to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that it provide employee insurance that covers those specific forms of birth control.

There are dozens of legal challenges to the contraceptive mandate. The Supreme Court decided to weigh in on this issue, in part, because the federal appeals courts are split on the question.

Why is this case so important? 

Basically, the case deals with two controversial issues. A broad decision from the court on either question could have huge implications for corporate religious freedom, and for the contraceptive mandate itself. If the court does decide that corporations have the right to religious exercise, we could end up seeing religious freedom challenges to laws preventing businesses from discriminating against LGBT people and other employment laws. It's important to note, however, that today's decision will almost certainly not strike down the entire mandate itself, as SCOTUSBlog's Lyle Denniston explained before the oral arguments in this case: "The nation’s politics, and many of its legislatures (including Congress), are absorbed with debates over whether to keep the law, to amend it, to render it unenforceable, or to repeal it altogether," Denniston wrote, adding, "None of that depends upon the outcome of this case."

It's probably more useful to think of this case in terms of what doors it could open or close to private corporations seeking to challenge laws on religious freedom grounds.

So, what will they decide?

Ha ha, we're not going to fall into the trap of predicting the outcome of a Supreme Court decision. However, there are a few clues as to the thinking of some of the justices. During the oral arguments, Justice Kagan and Justice Scalia give different interpretations of the intentions of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The three liberal justices seemed to side with Kagan, and it looks like Justice Kennedy, once again, will be the swing vote. But as the National Journal noted at the time, the Roberts court likes narrow decisions, and there's certainly a way to do one today. Chief Justice Roberts even offered a proposal for how that could work in these cases from the bench: essentially, by differentiating between the religious freedom rights of "closely held" corporations, as opposed to large, publicly traded ones. He said:

"Whether it applies in the other situations is a question that we'll have to await another case when a large publicly-traded corporation comes in and says, we have religious principles — the sort of situation I don't think is going to happen."

We have more on the Court's thinking on this case in our write-up of the oral arguments, here

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.