Supreme Court rules businesses can refuse to provide contraceptives to employees

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(Credit: CNN)

(Credit: CNN)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that closely held companies cannot be required to pay to cover some types of contraceptives for their employees, ending its term with a narrow legal and political setback for a controversial part of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, furniture maker Conestoga Wood Specialties and Christian bookseller Mardel argued that the Affordable Care Act violates the First Amendment and other federal laws protecting religious freedom because it requires them to provide coverage for contraceptives like the “morning-after pill,” which the companies consider tantamount to abortion.

STORY: Colorado politicians react to Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling

The decision, which comes two years after the justices narrowly preserved the Affordable Care Act and its key funding provision, could serve as a primer for other pending challenges to the health law.

The issue before the justices was whether Obamacare can mandate contraception coverage specifically for certain businesses that object for religious reasons.

“This case isn’t that practically important, except for the employees and businesses involved. There just aren’t a huge number of those,” said Thomas Goldstein, publisher of and a Washington appellate attorney.

“But everyone can agree the social questions presented — about when people can follow their religious convictions, and when people are entitled to contraception care — are truly important,” he said.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall decried the ruling.

“A woman’s personal health decisions about choosing to use contraception and when to start a family should stay strictly between her and her doctor — not her boss,” Udall said. “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision unacceptably takes these choices out of doctors’ offices and into the workplace. Our laws should empower Colorado women to make their own decisions based on their own beliefs, not the beliefs of the person signing their paycheck.”

Cory Gardner, Udall’s opponent in the November Senate race, also reacted.

“The court made the right decision today to protect religious liberty and the First Amendment,” he said. “The Food and Drug Administration now needs to move quickly to make oral contraceptives available to adults without a prescription. This easy step will make oral contraceptives both accessible and affordable for every woman who wants them. It’s common sense and it’s the right thing to do.”

Contraception mandate

The section of law in dispute requires for-profit employers of a certain size to offer insurance benefits for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.

A number of companies equate some of the covered drugs, such as the so-called “morning-after” pill, as causing abortion.

The specific question presented was whether these companies can refuse, on the sincere claim it would violate their owners’ long-established moral beliefs.

The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“How does a corporation exercise religion?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor at March’s oral arguments, summarizing perhaps the key constitutional question at hand.

“This is a religious question and it’s a moral question,” added Justice Samuel Alito, suggesting the businesses have such a right. “You want us to provide a definitive secular answer.”

Conestoga, Hobby Lobby

The justices have a good deal of discretion to frame the competing issues and could reach a limited “compromise” through narrow statutory interpretation.

They could conclude individual owners can make the religious freedom claim, bypassing the corporate rights argument, but still give female workers the flexibility to get covered drugs.

The court weighed two related appeals from Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinet maker, and Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based retail giant that will have more than 700 arts-and-crafts stores nationwide by year’s end.

Both corporations emphasized their desire to operate in harmony with biblical principles while competing in a secular marketplace. That includes their leaders’ publicly stated opposition to abortion.

The case presented a complex mix of legal, regulatory, and constitutional concerns over such thorny issues as faith, abortion, corporate power, executive agency discretion, and congressional intent.

Health law impact

The political stakes are large, especially for the future effectiveness of the health law, which marks its fourth anniversary this year.

The botched rollout last fall of, the federal Obamacare website, has become another political flashpoint along with other issues that many Republicans say proves the law is unworkable.

They have made Obamacare a key campaign issue in their fight to overtake the Senate, and retain control of the House.

Supporters of the law fear a high court setback on the contraception mandate will lead to other healthcare challenges on religion grounds, such as do-not-resuscitate orders and vaccine coverage. More broadly, many worry giving corporations religious freedom rights could affect laws on employment, safety, and civil rights.

The abortion link

The Hahn family, owners of Conestoga, and the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, said some of the mandated contraception prevent human embryos from being implanted in a woman’s womb, which the plaintiffs equate with abortion.

That includes Plan B contraception, which some have called the “morning after” pill, and intrauterine devices or IUDs used by an estimated 2 million American women.

A key issue for the bench was interpreting a 1993 federal law requiring the government to seek the “least burdensome” and narrowly tailored means for any law that interferes with religious convictions.

Monday’s decision comes two years after the justices allowed the law’s “individual mandate” to go into effect.

That provision requires most Americans to get health insurance or pay a financial penalty. It is seen as the key funding mechanism to ensure near-universal health coverage.

Under the Affordable Care Act, financial penalties of up to $100 per day, per employee can be levied on firms that refuse to provide comprehensive health coverage. Hobby Lobby, which has about 13,000 workers, estimates the penalty could cost it $475 million a year.

The church-state issue now in the spotlight involves rules negotiated between the Obama administration and various outside groups. Under the changes, churches and houses of worship are completely exempt from the contraception mandate.

Other nonprofit, religiously affiliated groups, such as church-run hospitals, parochial schools and charities must either offer coverage or have a third-party insurer provide separate benefits without the employer’s direct involvement. Lawsuits in those cases are pending in several federal appeals courts.

Second generation

Monday’s decision could signal how the court will approach other lawsuits against the health care law.

“We’re now getting the second generation of challenges to Obamacare– about the actual adoption of the statute, and its core provisions,” said Goldstein. “We’re probably going to see cases over the next five to ten years, as more and more details about the law get put into effect.”


  • Anonymous

    The person is not being denied the contraceptive just her employer paying for it. She would still have the choice of paying for it out of pocket or working for a different employer.

    • Mary

      Based on that logic, a company owned by a family that believes in “faith healing” should have the right to deny ALL health insurance to employees who do not subscribe to their beliefs. After all, the employees can pay to have a broken leg set or to have cancer treatment or treatment for some chronic condition (diabetes, COPD, heart disease, arthritis, etc) or to just get a physical and periodic vaccinations (for the employee or the employee’s spouse or any children) OR the employees can find a new job, RIGHT?

      • Joel

        Again, nothing is being denied or restricted to a person. Only the coverage of such products under Obamacare mandated health insurance to a narrow group of companies. One needs to remember that Obamacare is forcing heath care insurance that covers many aspects of all health care and because of that, a ruling like this became necessary to specify. If there were no Obamacare, a decision like this would not have been needed in the first place.

      • sheep

        Mary with your logic if your mother had a job they should have been forced to pay for your abortion, unfortunately they didn’t. Did you read the ruling? Or just continue to spew your cowardly garbage? Companies still have to cover 16 out of the 19 types of bith control coverd in the mandate. So where is the ” ban” you seem to think exists?

  • Anonymous

    Make a choice allow for birth control or pay welfare. Everyone fighting against birth control to save a child fights against the welfare to care for the children created. You can’t have it both ways.

    • thrushjz

      I adopted one of those (hispanic) kids….you lefty’s preach good but you don’t practice what you preach.

    • Sarah

      Yep you’re right. People complain about abortion, they complain about children going homeless, hungry and abused, and then they complain about birth control. I don’t get it. What’s cheaper and more humane in the long run, ugh birth control. Again, who picks up the tab for all of these unwanted children? We do. We really are a stupid country sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    Rergarding Mark Udall’s response – it’s a typical no-thought emoting, just repeating a liberal mantra. What he is saying is that, if your employer doesn’t pay for your contrceptives, then you don’t have a choice. Really, Mark? If a woman has an employer, it stands to reason that she receives a paycheck. It’s still her choice whether or not to buy contraceptives. Udall’s response is disingenuous, and I would think/hope that most woman are beginning to see through liberal nonsense. Udall’s statement is a flat-out lie – there have been no choices removed for women because of this ruling.

    • Mary

      Kind of depends on how much the employer pays compared to the cost of contraception AND the associated periodic physicals. Oh – I know – you believe in abstinence despite the fact that studies indicate that over 80% of married couples use birth control at some point in the marriage – and that abstinence is grounds for a church accepting a divorce (or, in the case of Catholics, being granted an annulment even if the marriage has lasted a long time and has produced children).

  • thrushjz

    My son’s College ccu also won their case last week…which probably had a large effect on the Hobby Lobby case.

  • Sarah

    I’ve really become disgusted with religion and all the religious ‘followers.’ Religion is has caused nothing but problems in this world and is full of hypocrites. Sounds like HL is using ‘their beliefs’ as an excuse to save them tons of money.

  • cow tip

    You should try and actully own a business and do something with your life instead of just sitting at home collecting welfare like a good little democrat.

  • Izzy

    It is unfortunate because this decision ultimately effects the medical expenses of women who are paid minimum wage or possibly a few dollars more. They can barely afford to live bellow poverty level and all this has done is increased their financial burden on a personal matter that should be between a woman and her doctor. Where is the separation of church and state? Since when did an entity have beliefs? How is this justice?

    • Joel

      It is not really increasing their financial burden on a personal matter because the cost was already originally theirs. Individuals had it before at some point and now it simply continues to be an individual expense.

      Second, the government has already intervened in personal matters between a woman and her doctor (anyone and their doctor for that matter) by allowing or not allowing doctors to participate in insurance programs that a person may choose from. We all know the lie “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” turned out to be. This is only one example of how the government has already interfered in health choices.

      Third, Separation of church and state was a philosophy that was mentioned in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. It is not in the Constitution nor even in the Declaration of Independence. It is not a government foundation. Ironically, the Danbury baptists were also concerned with the way their religious beliefs were being held in disregard by Connecticut and felt their beliefs were not granted as a “right”. VERY Ironic.

      Entity and beliefs? Citizens united.

      Justice? Everyone has their own definition.

      • Izzy

        All your talk just to disregard the real point that it is women making minimum wage that have to deal with the financial burden

      • Joel

        Your point on financial burden was addressed. It only took 2 sentences to dispute due to it being a straw man. I could also say that it will affect women with no trouble at all in affording the cost. They had it all along up to now. But there is no sympathy for them.

      • little sister

        So who paid for it before Obama care? Are you saying a woman can’t take care of herself and has to have the government make sure she is provided for? I take extreme offense to that

      • Buzz

        Yes if you’re a woman or a minority you don’t know how to take care of yourself and the government must constantly step in to make sure your ok. That’s what the progressive liberal democrats believe. Otherwise they don’t have a leg to stand on

  • vlyn7

    Your caption is so insightful as to the liberal leanings of your news organization. The ruling was not about”refusing” to pay for contraceptives but the religious freedom to not “have” to.

  • Fast45

    Perhaps if women STOP SHOPPING at Hobby Lobby, the message will be clearer. There are so many other craft-supply businesses, who don’t say their imaginary friend-in-the-sky tells them to discriminate against women.

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