Obamacare's contraception mandate infringes on religious liberty and must be waived for some business owners, the Supreme Court said in a 5-4 ruling Monday.
Certain employers cannot be forced to include contraception in their health care plans if doing so would violate their religious beliefs, the Court said. The justices did not strike down the birth-control mandate altogether, but their decision will weaken the policy's reach.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the decision applied only to closely held corporations, like the two firms that filed this challenge.
How deeply the Court's decision undermines the contraception mandate will depend largely on how business owners respond. Women's-rights advocates have said a ruling in Hobby Lobby's favor could affect millions of women, although birth control remains a popular and particularly cost-effective benefit.
The furthest-reaching implications could come farther down the road; the Obama administration and its allies have warned that companies will rely on the ruling to seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.
"So another employer comes in and that employer says, 'I have a religious objection to sex-discrimination laws.' And then another employer comes in: 'I have a religious objection to minimum-wage laws.' And then another, family leave; and then another, child-labor laws," Justice Elena Kagan said during oral arguments in March.
Alito sought to blunt that possibility in Monday's ruling, writing that allowing companies to opt out of the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate did not necessarily allow them to opt out of other health care requirements.
The challenge to the contraception mandate was filed by two for-profit companies — Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties — whose owners object on religious grounds to some forms of birth control.
Obamacare requires for-profit companies to include a defined set of preventive services in their health care plans without any cost-sharing — such as co-pays or deductibles — for employees. On the advice of an expert scientific panel, the Obama administration included contraception as one of the required preventive services.
The broader prevention mandate still stands, and contraception is still part of it. The Court's ruling only means that companies must be able to seek an exemption from the coverage requirement on religious grounds.