(Adds reaction from Republican and Democratic congressional
leaders, paragraph 9)
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, June 30 The U.S. Supreme Court on
Monday ruled that owners of private companies can object on
religious grounds to a provision of President Barack Obama's
healthcare law that requires employers to provide insurance
covering birth control for women.
The decision, which applies only to a small number of family
or other closely-held companies, means an estimated several
thousand women whose health insurance comes via such companies
may have to obtain certain forms of birth control coverage
In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the justices said the
companies can seek an exemption from the so-called birth control
mandate of the law known as Obamacare. The companies in the case
said they did not object to all birth control but certain
methods they said were tantamount to abortion, which they oppose
for religious reasons.
In their last decision of the nine-month term, the justices
ruled for the first time that for-profit companies can make
claims under a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom
Restoration Act that was enacted to protect religious liberty.
In the majority opinion, conservative Justice Samuel Alito
said it was difficult to distinguish between closely held
corporations and the people who own them. The religious liberty
law was not intended to discriminate "against men and women who
wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the
manner required by their religious beliefs," he wrote.
In reaching its conclusion, the court touched on questions
of corporate rights four years after the justices, in a case
called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, endorsed
broad free-speech rights for companies in the campaign finance
One of the two cases was brought by arts-and-crafts retailer
Hobby Lobby Stores Ltd, which is owned and operated by David and
Barbara Green and their children, who are evangelical
Christians. The other case was brought by Norman and Elizabeth
Hahn, Mennonites who own Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp in
Pennsylvania. None of the companies that have objected are
publicly traded. Hobby Lobby has around 13,000 full-time
employees while Conestoga Wood has 950.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the court's decision
"jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top
Republican in Congress, called the ruling "a victory for
religious freedom and another defeat for an administration that
has repeatedly crossed constitutional lines in pursuit of its
Big Government objectives." U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid said his fellow Democrats "will continue to fight to
preserve women's access to contraceptive coverage and keep
bosses out of the examination room."
WOMEN'S RIGHTS ASSERTED
Women's rights groups said the ruling gave employers too
much of a say over private decisions.
"Bosses should stick to what they know best - the board room
and the bottom line - and stay out of the bedroom and doctors'
offices," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National
Women's Law Center.
Hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of one of the most
contentious cases of the Supreme Court term converged on the
courthouse, wearing costumes, chanting and carrying signs. Some
demonstrators chanted, "Keep your boardroom out of my bedroom"
and "Separate church and state, women must decide their fate."
Kristina Arriaga, executive director of the Becket Fund for
Religious Liberty, which represented Hobby Lobby, said outside
the building that the justices had "recognized that American
families do not lose their fundamental rights when they own a
Alito wrote that the ruling applied only to the birth
control mandate and did not mean companies would necessarily
succeed if they made similar claims to other insurance
requirements, such as vaccinations and blood transfusions.
Alito indicated that employees could still be able to obtain
birth control coverage via an expansion of an accommodation to
the mandate that the Obama administration has already introduced
for religious-affiliated nonprofits. The accommodation allows
health insurance companies to provide the coverage without the
employer being involved in the process.
Under the accommodation, eligible non-profits must provide a
"self certification", described by one lower court judge as a
"permission slip" authorizing insurance companies to provide the
coverage. The accommodation, as it applies to
religiously-affiliated nonprofit groups, is the subject of a
separate legal challenge that is currently being litigated in
The government's accommodation is "less restrictive than
requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate
their religious beliefs," Alito wrote.
In her dissent Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the
liberal wing of the court, cautioned that the decision opened
the door to companies opting out of laws.
"In a decision of startling breadth, the court holds that
commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with
partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law
... they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious
beliefs," she wrote.
The case was the second time that the 2010 Affordable Care
Act, which extended healthcare insurance coverage to millions,
had been before the court. In a landmark 2012 case, the justices
upheld by a 5-4 vote the constitutionality of Obamacare's core
feature that requires people to get health insurance.
The case has no bearing on the broader fate of the
healthcare law and does not affect the vast majority of what the
government estimates to be 29.7 million women who currently
receive birth control coverage as a result of the law.
The decision will affect similar cases brought by employers
around the country. There are 49 cases in total, according to
the Becket Fund. Religious institutions are already exempt from
the requirement. There are fewer than 20,000 employees in total,
including men and women, who work for companies that object to
the mandate, according to the Reproductive Research Audit, a
group that backs the objecting companies. The group concluded
that of that 20,000, around 5,600 are likely to be women of
Some of the company owners involved in litigation around the
country, including Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, object to
contraceptive methods such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries
Ltd's Plan B morning-after pill, and ella, made by the
Watson Pharma unit of Actavis PLC.
Drug industry analysts said they expected the ruling's
impact on birth control manufacturers would be minimal. Shares
in Teva and Actavis were little changed on Monday.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll before the ruling found a
majority of Americans oppose letting employers, based on their
religious views, exclude certain contraceptives from workers'
The poll of 10,693 people asked whether employers should be
able to choose what forms of contraceptives their health plans
provide based on their religious beliefs. Of those responding,
53 percent disagreed and 35 percent agreed. Of those surveyed,
12 percent said they did not know.
The cases are Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v.
Burwell, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-354, 13-356.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson, David Morgan and Will
Dunham; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)