In a deeply divisive case pitting advocates of religious liberty against women's right's groups, the Supreme Court said today that two for profit corporations with sincerely held religious beliefs do not have to provide a full range of contraceptives at no cost to their employees pursuant to the Affordable Care Act.
In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito the court held that as applied to closely held corporations the Health and Human Services regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion.
The decision is a victory for the Green family that owns the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain and the Hahns who own Conestoga, a cabinet making company, who had challenged the so called contraceptive mandate saying it forced them to either violate their faith or pay ruinous fines. The government defended the provision as an essential part of health care coverage for women.
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Here's what you need to know about the decision:
What did the court rule?
The court rejected the government's claim that neither the owners nor the corporations could bring a religious liberty claim. "Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga ... protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies," Alito wrote.
Alito says the court has "little trouble" concluding that the HHS contraceptive mandate substantially burdens the exercise of region: "The Hahns and the Greens believe that providing the coverage demanded by the HHS regulation is connected to the destruction of an embryo in a way that is sufficient to make it immoral for them to provide the coverage."
What else did Alito hold in his majority opinion?
"The Government has failed to show that the contraceptive mandate is the least restrict means of furthering that interest," according to the majority opinion.
Alito wrote that the owners of Hobby Lobby believe that the coverage required of the health care law "is connected to the destruction of an embryo in a way that is sufficient to make it immoral for them to provide the coverage ... HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] has not shown that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objecting parties in these cases."
"Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those FRFR companies," Alito wrote in the majority opinion.
Alito said the opinion was limited to closely held corporations: "Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer's religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them. "
What did Ginsburg's dissent say?
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent, joined on the merits by Justice Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Steven Breyer.
In her dissent Ginsburg -disagreed with Alito --and worried about what other challenges might come next. :"Reading the Act expansively, as the court does, raises a host of "Me, too" questions. Can an employer in business for profit opt out of coverage for blood transfusions, vaccinations, antidepressants, or medications derived from pigs, based on the employer's sincerely held religious beliefs opposing those medical practices."
Ginsburg wrote , "The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would override significant interests of the corporations' employees and covered dependents. It would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage that the ACA would otherwise secure"
She took the unusual step of reading her dissent from the bench.
What is the White House saying?
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest: "President Obama believes that people should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them. Today's decision jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies. As Millions of women know firsthand, contraception is often vital to their health and well-being. That is why the Affordable Care Act ensures that women have access to contraceptive care, along with other preventative care, like vaccines and cancer screenings. We will work with Congress to make sure that any women effected by this decision will still have the same coverage and vital health services as everyone else."
What are liberals and allied groups saying?
DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz: "I am disappointed and deeply concerned by the Supreme Court's decision today in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans have gained access to preventive services without out-of-pocket costs, including birth control. However, this decision takes money out of the pockets of women and their families and allows for-profit employers to deny access to certain health care benefits based on their personal beliefs. Nearly sixty percent of women who use birth control do so for more than just family planning."
What are conservatives and allied groups saying?
"This is a great victory for religious liberty - the bedrock of our founding," said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. "In living out our religious convictions, there are certain things we must not do. This is why we are at a watershed moment. Religious people will no longer be ordered to take action that our religion says we must not take.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel to the Judicial Crisis Network, on Hobby Lobby: "The Supreme Court today upheld the liberty at the heart of the Constitution: the right to religious freedom. The Court rightly concluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects religious business owners just as much as it protects their employees. RFRA guarantees not just a right of religious worship or speech, but religious exercise. Today the Supreme Court reaffirmed religious freedoms that literally centuries of Americans have enjoyed from even before the founding of this country.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins learned of the ruling this morning as he met with the Hahn family, founders and owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties: "The Supreme Court has delivered one of the most significant victories for religious freedom in our generation. We are thankful the Supreme Court agreed that the government went too far by mandating that family businesses owners must violate their consciences under threat of crippling fines.
What are prominent GOP members of Congress saying?
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex.: "Today's victory in the Hobby Lobby case is terrific news -- but now is no time to rest. We cannot rely on the courts alone to defend our religious liberty"
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah: "I applaud the Supreme Court's decision to protect the religious freedom of all Americans, both individually and collectively. The notion that religious freedom belongs only to some, and even then only in private, defies our nation's traditions, our laws, and our Constitution. And as the Supreme Court rightfully said today, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could not have been clearer in saying religious liberty of all Americans must be equally protected and not unnecessarily burdened
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn: "I am extremely encouraged by today's Supreme Court decision to uphold the religious liberty rights of the Green family of Hobby Lobby.
Remind me, what happened during oral arguments?
Paul D. Clement, a lawyer for the companies told the Justices in March that for-profit corporations-with sincerely held religious beliefs-should not have to provide coverage for four FDA approved contraceptives. The Green Family, who are evangelical Christians and the Hahns, who are Mennonites, object to four of the drugs and devices because they say they have the potential to destroy an embryo.
Clement argued the law substantially burdens his clients and that the government-which has exempted others from the law-had no compelling justification to force Hobby Lobby and other closely held businesses to provide the coverage.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told the justices at oral arguments that the challengers to the law were asking for a radical departure from precedent . In briefs he said, "The Supreme Court has never granted a religious accommodation to a secular business that comes at the expense of its employees."
He argued that the corporations' claimed burden is "too attenuated" because it is the plan participants who decide which services to use in consultation with their doctors." Verrilli argued that the mandate is a part of a comprehensive insurance scheme and serves the government's interest in public health and gender equality.
ABC's Jake Lefferman contributed to this report.