In a 5-4 ruling that could have a significant impact on how the Affordable Health Care Act continues to be implemented, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled that certain for-profit companies can claim an exemption to the mandate that companies provide coverage to female employees for contraception. The court found that the contraception mandate within the Affordable Care Act "substantially burdens the exercise of religion" by the families that own the companies that challenged that rule.
The contraceptive coverage requirement was challenged in court by two corporations whose owners say they try to run their businesses on Christian principles: Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets. In its ruling, the Supreme Court said that the mandate violates the rights of the owners of these companies to express their religious beliefs. "It requires the Hahns and the Greens to engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious beliefs that life begins at conception," said the majority ruling, which was written by Justice Samuel Alito.
However, some caveats in the ruling most likely mean it will apply only to a small set of American companies. The decision only applies to so-called "closely held corporations," such as the ones in this case, which are each owned by a single family, whose Christian beliefs lead to opposition to certain types of contraception that they believe cause abortions.
The ruling also was careful to note that "this decision concerns only the contraception mandate" and does not apply to the question of whether for-profit companies could claim a religious exemption for other potentially controversial procedures such as vaccinations or blood transfusions.
"Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice," the opinion said in upholding the companies right to challenge the contraception mandate under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The RFRA had previously been understood to apply to individuals, rather than to corporations.