WASHINGTON Republicans say they've won an election-year victory from a Supreme Court ruling that allows some companies to opt out of providing contraception to women under the nation's new health care law.
But Democrats have also found encouragement from the ruling. They say it will be unpopular with younger voters and women who depend upon health insurance for birth control -- two groups Democrats want to rally in this year's midterm elections.
Republicans say the decision is a win for religious freedom and offers more evidence that President Barack Obama's signature policy achievement is deeply flawed. Democrats say it brings attention to women's reproductive rights, an issue Democrats have tried to highlight in key Senate races this fall.
Attempting to expand religious expression protections to small business owners without significantly disrupting the rules that govern for-profit corporations, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Obama administration must exempt closely-held firms like Hobby Lobby from a rule requiring large companies to help pay for their employees' birth control.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the court ruled that closely-held firms like Hobby Lobby are protected by Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The RFRA dictates that an individual's religious expression shouldn't be "substantially burdened" by a law unless there is a "compelling government interest."
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the contraception rule "would put these merchants to a difficult choice: either give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits, available to their competitors, of operating as corporations."
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. -- two privately-held, for-profit companies -- sued the United States government over a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide comprehensive health coverage (including contraception) or pay a fine. Hobby Lobby's owners, David and Barbara Green of Oklahoma, say they have strong objections based in their Christian faith to providing health care coverage for certain types of contraception. The Pennsylvania-based Hahn family, the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, had the same complaint.
The Obama administration already exempted nonprofits with religious affiliations, such as Catholic universities, from the contraception coverage rule.
Monday's ruling is a loss for reproductive rights advocates who have balked at the notion that some businesses can pick and choose which contraception methods to cover.
While it's a victory for Christian conservatives opposed to the contraception rule, the ruling skirts the broad ramifications that could have come from shielding all for-profit firms from laws that interfere with religious beliefs. Such a ruling, the administration argued, could have interfered with laws that ban gender discrimination, minimum wage and overtime laws, or mandated health coverage for vaccinations, to name a few.
Alito made several points to lay to rest concerns that corporations would take unfair of advantage of his ruling.
"In any event, our decision in these cases is concerned solely with the contraceptive mandate," he wrote. "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."
Furthermore, Alito wrote that it "seems unlikely" that corporate giants like IBM or General Electric would seek the same exemption granted to Hobby Lobby.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged Alito's insistence that the ruling is narrow, calling it "a decision of startling breadth."
She slammed the ruling for accommodating for-profit corporations' religious beliefs, "matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners' religious faith--in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ."
Ginsburg also categorically rejected the notion that corporations, even closely-held ones, should be able to exercise religious freedoms: "The exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities," she wrote.
Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg in the dissent.
Reproductive rights advocates on Monday noted the widespread use of birth control -- 99 percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives. They said that the way Alito applied his argument exclusively to the birth control rule was tantamount to discrimination against women.
"Singling women out specifically for discrimination in health care and otherwise is unacceptable," NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue told reporters Monday afternoon.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday afternoon that the White House is still assessing the legal implications of the ruling, including what companies are actually covered by the decision.
"But we believe that the owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits," Earnest said. While the White House will of course respect the Supreme Court's ruling, he added, "We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else."
U.S. Representative Lee Terry today made the following statement after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious protection for businesses under Obamacare's contraceptive mandate:
"Today, the Supreme Court not only upheld the religious protection of job creators, but it also dealt a swift blow to the constitutionality of part of the President's health care law.
"Our forefathers founded this country with many great principles including religious freedom. Businesses and individuals should not be forced by Washington to violate their religious or moral beliefs. Today's decision is a victory for the values guaranteed in our Constitution."
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry made the following statement after the decision favoring Hobby Lobby's highly publicized lawsuit, charging that the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) mandated coverage of controversial drugs and procedures violated the family business' rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"Today, Hobby Lobby can continue to provide generous health care benefits to their employees without violating their deeply-held, reasoned beliefs," Fortenberry said. "The Supreme Court ruling represents one of basic fairness and upholds a fundamental American principle of religious liberty and the rights of conscience. The HHS mandate was of serious concern to many Americans."
Fortenberry attended the March oral arguments on the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties cases at the invitation of the Supreme Court. "I believe this is one of the most important rulings in modern court history," Fortenberry said. "It sets some limits on government power and affirms First Amendment rights."
Fortenberry is part of the Congressional team that introduced the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940) to protect Americans' rights of conscience and religious freedom. The legislation offered a reprieve from the HHS mandate for a variety of health care providers and businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties. To date, 54 courts nationwide have ruled in favor of plaintiffs challenging the mandate. Fortenberry previously authored the Respect for the Rights of Conscience Act in the 111th Congress.
Attorney General Jon Bruning applauded today's U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Burwell. The Court ruled a closely-held corporation cannot be forced to violate religious beliefs to provide insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
"Today's decision is a victory for this great nation's founding principle of religious liberty," said Bruning. "We're pleased the Court ruled to limit the trampling of the First Amendment which has plagued millions of Americans since the passage of Obamacare."
In 2012, Nebraska brought suit challenging the contraception provision of the federal health care law. Due to multiple lawsuits being filed across the U.S. Circuit Courts, Nebraska ultimately supported the Hobby Lobby case, which moved quickly through the federal court system.
Congressman Adrian Smith released the following statement after the ruling in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
"Today's decision is an important victory for religious freedom and conscience rights against the expansion of the federal government into our lives. I applaud the ruling which reverses one of the many overreaches of Obamacare. Certainly, there is more to be done. Moving forward we must continue to insist religious freedom is respected for all Americans, and to address the many problems of Obamacare."
Smith joined with 85 members of the House and Senate in filing an amicus brief in support of Hobby Lobby.