The Supreme Court clarified a portion of the ACA applying to closely held businesses, by deciding, in a 5-4 ruling, that the Department of Health and Human Services regulations under the Affordable Care Act, which impose a contraceptive mandate, violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
The regulations in question required employers to provide coverage for 20 contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including four that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. Religious employers such as churches are exempt from the mandate, and HHS has effectively exempted religious nonprofit organizations with religious objections.
According to Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court, the owners of three closely held for-profit corporations have religious objections to abortion, and the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.
“If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions, and if they do not comply, they will pay a very heavy price—as much as $1.3 million per day, or about $475 million per year, in the case of one of the companies,” Alito stated.
HHS argued that the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies. However, the Court dismissed this argument, saying that would leave merchants with a difficult choice, either to give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations.
“As we have seen, RFRA was designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty,” stated Alito. “By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required. Is there any reason to think that the Congress that enacted such sweeping protection put small-business owners to the choice that HHS suggests?”
Congress provided protection for the business owners in this case by employing a familiar legal fiction, according to Alito.
“It included corporations within RFRA’s definition of persons.’ But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”
The opinion was joined by Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice Kennedy filed a concurring opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined, and in which Justices Breyer and Kagan joined in part. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan filed a separate dissenting opinion.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., stated, “Today’s Supreme Court decision flies in the face of the ongoing effort to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace. This is alarming news for women and working families in Oregon and across the country, especially since it could apply to the overwhelming majority of employees in the private sector.”
Ilona Turner, legal director of the Transgender Law Center, stated that she was disappointed with the ruling. However, she emphasized that the majority opinion clarified that the decision should not provide a free pass to corporations to evade other laws, like those prohibiting discrimination.
“The Court’s ruling will not allow companies to discriminate against LGBT employees and then claim that their religious beliefs somehow justify that discrimination,” she stated.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, stated, “Today’s decision from five male justices is a direct attack on women and our fundamental rights. This ruling goes out of its way to declare that discrimination against women isn’t discrimination.”
U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D., R-Okla., stated, “The Supreme Court’s decision today is a victory for all Americans. The Court wisely affirmed that it is wrong for the government to violate the freedom of conscience and religious liberties of American citizens.”
Coburn went on to state, “This case was not about access to birth control, but government coercion. Hobby Lobby, which employs thousands of Americans across the country, provides its employees with quality health care insurance, including coverage for nearly all FDA approved contraceptives. This case was about the federal government forcing Hobby Lobby’s owners to choose between paying for life-ending drugs and devices and violating their beliefs, or crippling their business. I’m pleased the Court ruled in favor of freedom.”
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