WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Barack Obama’s health care law Monday by ruling Christian business owners may refuse to provide employees with insurance coverage for certain forms of birth control.
In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom — often referred to as the Hobby Lobby case — the justices decided the religious rights of these company owners trump the desire of female employees to receive the full contraceptive coverage promised by the law.
The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., was hailed as a victory for social conservatives.
“Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government and Obamacare cannot violate Americans’ religious freedoms. Specifically, Obamacare cannot force employers and taxpayers to pay for abortion-inducing drugs,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life.
The decision wasn’t even hours old before politicians began using it to raise money for their campaigns or to attack their opponents.
David Pepper, the Democratic candidate for Ohio attorney general, said it was a “sad day for the freedom of Ohio women to make their own health care decisions.” He chastised his opponent, current state AG Mike DeWine, for using his office and taxpayer dollars to wage a national three-year ideological crusade to stop birth control.
Meanwhile, aides for U.S. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, fired off e-mails noting that “we must not forget that this battle was won by just one vote.” Portman then reminded voters that Republicans need to control the Senate in the upcoming election to thwart Obama’s potential selection of two Supreme Court justices. “Chip in to our end of the month fundraising drive before midnight,” he asked.
The administration’s lawyers had argued that a private, for-profit corporation, such as the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores, had never before been accorded rights based on religion.
But the court determined that the Green family from Oklahoma City who founded the chain has a sincere religious belief that certain contraceptives destroy a fertilized egg and, therefore, are akin to an early abortion.
On the Facebook page of The Lima News, Heather Bishop Samsal saw that as a blow to a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.
“Our poor daughters. It’s like watching history in reverse.” Samsal said.
Amy Felkey Orwick countered that she didn’t see anyone’s rights being revoked.
Alito ruled the owners of closely held corporations have religious rights under federal law.
The “Greens have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception,” Alito said. “They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that … may result in the destruction of an embryo.”
By requiring them and their companies to arrange for such insurance coverage, the law’s contraceptive “mandates demands that they engage in conduct that seriously violates their religious beliefs.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined with Alito.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called it a “decision of startling breadth” in which the “court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, can opt out of any law, saving only tax laws, they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” She said the ruling will leave thousands of women without the contraceptive coverage promised by the law. Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined her dissent.
Two years ago, the court narrowly upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional on a 5-4 vote. Monday’s decision will limit one aspect of the health care law — the requirement that health plans include coverage for contraceptives. But it’s one that could potentially affect large numbers of female employees.