The US Supreme Court has ruled Christian-owned company Hobby Lobby can claim a religious exemption to a legal requirement that employers pay for their workers’ contraception.
The owners of Oklahoma-based craft supply shop chain Hobby Lobby argued the mandate in President Barack Obama’s healthcare law violated their religious beliefs.
The 5-4 decision applies only to “closely held” companies.
It does not apply to other healthcare some find morally objectionable.
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that some corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the requirement, written into Barack Obama’s signature 2010 health overhaul, that companies with 50 or more employees offer a health insurance plan that covers contraception.
The case turned in large part on whether the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which bars the US government from taking action that “substantially burdens the exercise of religion”, applies to for-profit companies.
“We reject [the Department of Health and Human Services’] argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court.
“The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.”
The decision marks the first time the Supreme Court has found a profit-seeking business can hold religious views under federal law, analysts say.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the ruling a “decision of startling breadth”.
The ruling is a blow to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has been beset by legal challenges since it passed in 2010.
However, it is unclear whether any women employees will actually lose birth control coverage, because the Obama administration had already devised a mechanism under which workers of non-profit organizations that object to the contraception mandate could keep coverage without the organization having to pay for it.
In the case decided on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled on challenges by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp, a wood cabinetmaker owned by Mennonites.
Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, employs 13,000 full-time employees. Conestoga employs 950 people.
The owners of Hobby Lobby – David Green, Barbara Green and several relatives – had described themselves as “committed evangelical Christians” and said their religious beliefs “forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for… or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices”.
The Affordable Care Act, known by critics and supporters as ObamaCare, has been subject to countless legal and political challenges from Republicans and conservatives since its passage.
Considered the largest overhaul of the US healthcare system since the 1960s, it aims to extend health insurance coverage to the estimated 15% of the US population who lack it.
The Supreme Court has already ruled on the law. In 2012, the court affirmed the constitutionality of the act’s central provision, a requirement that most individuals who do not receive health insurance from the government or their employers purchase it or face a fine.
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